MLS, One of the Most Popular Soccer Leagues in the World

Major League Soccer (MLS) has become one of the most popular soccer leagues in the world. Today MLS is a men’s professional soccer league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, which represents the sport’s highest level in the United States. The league comprises 29 teams—26 in the U.S. and 3 in Canada—since the 2023 season. The league is headquartered in Midtown Manhattan.

Major League Soccer is the most recent in a series of men’s premier professional national soccer leagues established in the United States and Canada. The predecessor of MLS was the North American Soccer League (NASL), which existed from 1968 until 1984. MLS was founded in 1993 as part of the United States’ successful bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The inaugural season took place in 1996 with ten teams. MLS experienced financial and operational struggles in its first few years, losing millions of dollars and folding two teams in 2002. Since then, developments such as the proliferation of soccer-specific stadiums around the league, implementation of the Designated Player Rule allowing teams to sign star players such as David Beckham, and national TV contracts have made MLS profitable. With an average attendance of over 20,000 per game, MLS has the fourth-highest average attendance of any major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada after the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and Canadian Football League (CFL), and was the seventh-highest attended professional soccer league worldwide by 2023.

The MLS regular season typically starts in late February or early March and runs through mid-October, with each team playing 34 games; the team with the best record is awarded the Supporters’ Shield. Fourteen teams compete in the postseason MLS Cup Playoffs in late October and November, culminating in the league’s championship game, MLS Cup.

Instead of operating as an association of independently owned clubs, MLS is a single entity in which each team is owned by the league and individually operated by the league’s investors. The league has a fixed membership like most sports leagues in the United States and Canada, which makes it one of the few soccer leagues that does not use a promotion and relegation process.

LA Galaxy have the most MLS Cups, with five. They are also tied with D.C. United for most Supporters’ Shields, with four each. Los Angeles FC are the defending champions, as they defeated Philadelphia Union 3–0 on penalties in MLS Cup 2022 on November 5, 2022, to mark the end of the 2022 season.

Today, MLS has become the home of many soccer stars such as Hector Herrera (Houston Dynamo FC), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), and Xherdan Shaqiri (Chicago Fire FC), just to name a few.

MLS is also one of the most diverse soccer leagues in the world today. As shown in the table below, there were 82 countries represented in the MLS as of March 10, 2022, ahead of other soccer leagues like Serie A (62 countries) and Ligue 1 (60 countries) at that time.

MLS NEXT, a Path to MLS Youth Development

In 2007, Major League Soccer mandated that clubs have youth academies with the purpose of developing homegrown players. Sixteen years later, players developed in MLS youth academies are now significant members of MLS clubs, United States and Canadian national teams, and playing for clubs around the world. A significant figure in the player development path is MLS NEXT, the 600+ team youth soccer league in the United States and Canada that opened its third season of play in September 2022.

Over 13,000 players from the country’s leading 137 clubs, including all 29 MLS academies, play in up to six age groups: U13, U14, U15, U16, U17, and U19.

MLS NEXT provides the best player development experience in North America. Founded on a collaborative approach to governance and a commitment to innovation, MLS NEXT players have access to the highest levels of competition and to training to prepare them for their futures, both in soccer and in life. The 2022-23 season features top prospects from across the U.S. and Canada, in both MLS academies and Elite club academies, competing for a chance to become MLS NEXT champions at the 2023 MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs in June.

Additionally, the 2023 MLS NEXT calendar will feature three premier events, including Generation adidas Cup in April 2023, MLS NEXT Flex – a qualifying event for the MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs – in May 2023, and the MLS NEXT All-Star Game presented by Allstate in July 2023.

Of the 45 players selected to the inaugural MLS NEXT All-Star Game presented by Allstate, nine players have signed Homegrown contracts with their MLS clubs, including two players each for the New England Revolution – Esmir Bajraktarevic and Jack Panayotou – and San Jose Earthquakes – Cruz Medina and Emmanuel Ochoa.

Midfielder Favian Loyola of the Orlando City SC academy was named the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star match and concluded his standout year by signing a first-team contract as a Homegrown player. In addition to stellar competition in MLS NEXT, select NEXT clubs will earn their way to compete in the 2023 Generation adidas Cup, an elite international youth tournament featuring 80 MLS and professional academies from around the globe.

The event will be held at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. from April 1-9, 2023. Last year, 23 international teams from many of the most notable clubs in the global game were represented at GA Cup, including Manchester United of the Premier League, River Plate of the Argentine Primera División, Celtic of the Scottish Premiership and Flamengo of Brazilian Série A, who were all represented in both the U-17 and U-15 divisions.

The US to host the 2026 Soccer World Cup

MLS is set to benefit from the upcoming 2026 World Cup which will take place in three North American countries: the United States, Mexico, and Canada. This will be the first time that the tournament is hosted by three different nations and it will be the very first time that the event will be contested in Canada.

As part of this week’s profile on MLS, we interviewed Fred Lipka, MLS Vice President of Player and Youth Development.

?Show Notes: Through this interview, we touched on Lipka’s background and his role at the MLS. We also discussed the pathway to become a player in North America. Fred also gave us his opinion on the importance of technologies to help improve the performance and safety of players. Lastly we discussed some of his favorite technologies that he has come across as well as some of the most talented young American soccer players such as Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson, or Tyler Adams.

?Best Quotes: Here’s some of the key discussion points and best quotes from our conversation with Fred:

  • On his background:
    • “So I’ve been working around the league for 10 years now. I started as a consultant and I created a partnership between the French Football Federation and MLS to develop coaches”. 
    • “The focus was mostly on the academy director position because we thought, with my boss, Todd Durbin, who is the Executive Vice President in charge of competition here at MLS, that a piece was missing in the U.S. to develop proper specialized experts to develop young talents”.
    • “It was a two-year-long process with lots of great talents emerging such as Wilfried Nancy, the coach of Columbus Crew, or Greg Vanney, the head coach of the LA Galaxy, or Luci Gonzalez, the head coach of the San Jose Earthquakes, and some GMs and sporting directors. But this group of coaches is comprised of people that are at the top level today.”
  • On some of the most talented young American soccer players such as Brenden Aaronson, or Tyler Adams:
    • “Brenden Aaronson is a player from New Jersey. He was living close to Philadelphia where he joined the academy. He was 13 years old at the time.

      He played with the academy and sometimes he wasn’t a starter”.

    • “He was a very active kid, very energetic, and very committed. And his father, by the way, runs the club, which is in our platform MLS Next. It’s called Real New Jersey (..) He started to play at a very young age with a USL team and  then he jumped quickly into the first team and he played maybe two seasons before going to RB Leipzig. And currently he plays for Leeds United FC. So it is a good success story to show how we try to pave the pathway for young players in the US”.
    • “Tyler Adams did exactly the same. He was the captain of the national team. He was playing for NY Red Bulls. Then he went to RB Leipzig and then Leeds United FC”.