Comparing the Premier League with Major League Soccer is a bit like comparing grandmothers and machine guns. The two are so fundamentally different—from junior level to league format to business model—that attempting to draw parallels is possibly a counterintuitive exercise. But it is an interesting one nonetheless.
The Premier League has 20 teams that play each other twice over the course of a season (once at home and once away) and whichever team has the most points or better goal difference after 38 games, wins. Simple.
Things in Major League Soccer are somewhat more convoluted.
Like all major league sports, the MLS’s 20 teams are divided up into conferences—two in this case—ten in the Eastern and ten in the Western. Each team plays a total of 34 regular season matches (one game against every team from the opposite conference—five at home and five away—and either two or three matches against teams from their own conference). At the end of the regular season the top six teams from each conference qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs. The third and sixth and fourth and fifth teams in each conference play a single knockout game, the winner of which advances to the Conference Semifinals where they face the first and second placed teams in the conference, respectively.
Following all this?
Four Conference Semifinals are then played over two legs, the winners of which progress to the Conference Final where they battle it out over another two legs. The victors of each Conference Final then play a one-legged match known as the MLS Cup (played at the home ground of the participant with the highest point total during the regular season).
So, in a nutshell, MLS teams contend the league in order to qualify for a knockout cup competition (better known as “the playoffs”). It’s worth noting here that the MLS team with the best regular season record does receive some acknowledgment for their league consistency in the form of the Supporters’ Shield. However, it is unfortunately a somewhat redundant award, more akin to the FA’s Community Shield than any major honor.
While the MLS Cup and Premier League Trophy are the highest domestic honors that American and British teams can win respectively, clubs from both nations also compete in various cup competitions.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (commonly known as the U.S. Open Cup) is a knockout tournament similar to the English FA Cup in that the tournament is open to both amateur and professional clubs. The first Open Cup was held in the 1913-14 season and is the world’s third-longest-running open soccer tournament (who says U.S. soccer doesn’t have history?). There is no real American equivalent to the English League Cup—a competition that differs from the FA Cup because only the 92 professional teams that make up the Premier League and Football League are entered into it—and it wouldn’t make sense for MLS clubs to compete against each other in a knockout competition anyway because that is ultimately what they end up doing during the playoffs. In recent years the League Cup has become somewhat devalued as many of the top English sides, Arsenal and Manchester United in particular, use it as a chance to rest their first team and give young players some valuable big game experience.
One of the reasons it is useful for the big teams to rest players for League Cup fixtures is that they will most likely be competing in European club competitions too. Teams finishing inside the top four of the Premier League qualify for the Champions League (although the fourth placed team must first go through a qualifying round) where they are matched up against the rest of Europe’s elite. The winners of the two domestic Cups enter the UEFA Europa League along with the fifth placed team from the Premier League. However, if a team that wins one of the domestic cups qualifies for the Champions League then their Europa League place will revert to the next highest-placed Premier League team that didn’t win one of the two cups. Theoretically speaking, if a British club were to reach both domestic cup finals and the Champions League Final, they would play a minimum of 63 games during that season, which is why resting big players for League Cup games is so prevalent amongst the Premier League big boys.
MLS teams engage in continental competition too. Four teams (the MLS Cup winner; the Supporters’ Shield winner; the team with the best regular season record in the opposite conference to the Shield winner and the Open Cup winner) compete in the CONCACAF Champions League along with 20 other teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The competition has only twice been won by an American team (D.C. United in 1998 and the L.A. Galaxy in 2000) and historically has been dominated by Mexican clubs.
Promotion and Relegation
The single-tier structure of the MLS is almost unique as a professional football league in that it means there is no promotion or relegation (Australia’s A-League is the other notable division run in the same manner). This is the nature of the franchise system. Owners invest in ‘Major League’ teams meaning relegation would be a breach of their contract with the governing body. Similar to the playoff system, this is a precedent that has been set by other professional sports leagues in North America and Major League Soccer has thus far elected to follow suit.
There are, however, several tiers in the American footballing pyramid as recognized by the United States Soccer Federation, three of which are professional. MLS is considered Division I, NASL is Division II, and USL Pro is Division III. It is impossible for teams to move between these divisions.
The most obvious negative effect of the non-relegation system is that many teams have nothing to play for towards season’s end, and as a consequence, the remaining games take on a rather casual tone, not dissimilar to that of a friendly. This in turn creates a lack of interest from the fans, both devoted and armchair.
NASL (named in tribute to but not affiliated with the original North American Soccer League that ran from 1968-84) was founded in 2009 and is the de facto second tier of U.S. soccer. NASL’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly the rebirth of the New York Cosmos. This much beloved franchise was once the home of footballing legends such as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto and back in their ‘70s heyday the Comos averaged impressive home crowds of over 40,000. The Cosmos returned to action in 2013 and enjoyed immediate success as they won the NASL Soccer Bowl. Rumors that the Cosmos will eventually join the MLS have been floating around the blogosphere since the club reformed in 2010, but with the addition of New York City FC to the MLS in 2015 this now seems unlikely (even considering the marquee signing of former Spanish boy wonder Raúl).
The third tier of U.S. soccer, USL Pro, kicked off its inaugural season in 2011 with 12 clubs (which has since grown to 24) and in 2013 the organization struck a deal with Major League Soccer to integrate MLS reserve teams into the division. The ultimate goal of the collaboration is to improve player development in the United States.
So while the great pyramid of professional soccer in the U.S. continues to expand, the popularity of the game continues to blossom. It should be considered a shame, however, that fans of the MLS will never experience relegation dogfights, or supporters of NASL clubs will never know the giddying highs of a successful promotion campaign. What a pity that an American soccer team could never “do a Wimbledon” and rise from amateur status to the MLS within a decade. What a pity indeed.
Acquisition of Players
Once a MLS club is no longer in playoff contention, it is actually within their best interests to finish as low in the standings as possible. The reason for this is that the lower a club finishes, the higher their pick of new players in the following season’s SuperDraft. The winners of the MLS Cup, on the other hand, are allocated the final pick. It is a strange, seemingly un-American socialist paradigm that losing is rewarded with first prize.
But the system has a divine purpose. Parity.
The SuperDraft format therefore serves two functions. Primarily, it keeps the league competitive, and secondly it keeps the wealthiest clubs from dominating. MLS franchise owners can’t simply buy their way to success like Chelsea and Manchester City have done in recent Premier League seasons. A MLS team could reasonably finish bottom one year and win the championship the next. Take the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) in the 1999 and 2000 campaigns for example. In ‘99, the Wizards finished the regular season rooted to the bottom of the Western Conference, winning just six of their 30 games. The following season they lifted the MLS Cup.
Although most American-born players currently plying their trade in the MLS have come via the more traditional college/SuperDraft route, clubs are now beginning to reap the benefits of youth academies based on the European model. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy was only formed in 2007, but now all MLS clubs are represented at some level. One recent graduate of the New York Red Bulls Academy is 22 year-old Juan Agudelo (now plying his trade at New England Revolution), whose impressive MLS performances have led to 19 caps for the U.S. national team.
The importance of a high-quality youth training system cannot be underestimated if Team USA truly wants to compete with the best in the world. The move away from the emphasis on college soccer means that players are now being groomed by their clubs to enter the first team at a much younger age. In Europe, most players are either in the first or reserve team by the age of 18, but in America this is when players were traditionally entering the college game. By 21, America’s top players had fallen too far behind Europe’s elite to ever catch up. The Development Academy is bridging that gap.
The MLS clubs’ academies differ from BPL clubs in that they generally don’t take on players under the age of 14 (European academies meanwhile will take on players as young as two), but regardless, we are witnessing a significant moment in the history of American soccer: The birth of grassroots grooming of Home Grown talent. It is only a matter of time before the MLS academies begin accepting players younger than 14, and when they do, the rest of the world’s footballing powerhouses are in trouble. Given the facilities and coaching now available to young players in America, it may only be a generation or two before we witness the national team lifting the World Cup.
Roster Rules and Regulations
With the ultimate goal of parity still firmly in mind, the MLS has stipulations in place that dictate clubs’ wage bills and what caliber of players they may sign within the league maximum of 30 players per team.
At the beginning of every season, each club is issued a salary budget by the league (for the 2014 season it was $3,100,000) to be spread out amongst the club’s ‘Salary Budget Players’ however the club sees fit. The minimum annual salary for a Salary Budget Player is $48,500 while the maximum is $387,500 – a figure easily earned in a week by many Premier League stars.
However, each team is permitted to sign a maximum of three ‘Designated Players’ whose salaries may exceed the salary cap with the club bearing financial responsibility for the excess. The rule was adopted in 2007 to enable the Los Angeles Galaxy to sign David Beckham and with the longer-term goal of attracting more international stars to the MLS.
MLS clubs are also limited as to how many foreign players they may sign. Currently the limit is eight, although somewhat confusingly, these slots are tradable because SuperDraft picks can be traded like players.
In the Premier League, clubs register a squad of up to 25 players prior to the start of the season, which permits them to select a maximum of 17 foreign players. The rules state the remaining eight players in the squad must be Home Grown. However, the term “Home Grown” doesn’t mean the player must be a British citizen. The Premier League defines a Home Grown player as:
“One, who irrespective of his nationality or age, has been registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21).”
This is why foreigners such as Nicklas Bendtner, Rafael da Silva and Gael Clichy are classified as Home Grown. The objective of these rules, put in place prior to the 2010-11 season, was to benefit young English players, and in the long term, the England national team.
After hemorrhaging money in its formative years, the MLS has since become a sustainable and profitable business model. In 2013, ten of the league’s 19 teams made a profit, a stark contrast indeed to the Premier League where the vast majority of clubs float around in tens (sometimes hundreds) of millions of pounds worth of net debt. Measures such as the MLS salary cap have contributed to this responsible economic structure, which fiscally safeguards the clubs and prevents financial catastrophes that have been seen at the likes of English clubs such as Leeds United and Portsmouth.
But things in the MLS were not always so fruitful. In the first five years following its inaugural 1996 season, Major League Soccer reported total losses of $250 million. However, the U.S. national team’s run to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup sparked increased interest in the game stateside. More spectators were suddenly showing up for MLS games and teams built soccer-specific stadiums, which not only allowed them to keep all the gate profits for themselves, but dramatically enhanced the game-day experience for the fans (previously clubs played in depressingly near-empty American football stadiums). Big television deals with ESPN and NBC followed, adding to the MLS’s coffers. The Designated Player rule then attracted global stars like Beckham, Cahill, and Henry, which in turn drew more spectators to the stadiums. Indeed, the MLS’s average attendance (19,151 in 2014) is now larger than both the NBA and the NHL.
One of the biggest differences between the MLS and the Premier League is that the MLS operates as a single-entity, which means when owners purchase a franchise they are actually investing in the Major League Soccer Company. It is a collaborative process with all clubs working together for the greater good of the league—the clubs are effectively business partners—and profits are shared. This socialist business concept would never work in the dog-eat-dog world of the Premier League, or as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski put it in their book Soccernomics, “Manchester United wouldn’t dream of giving Bolton or Wigan a cut of its shirts.”
One potential disadvantage of the franchise system from a fan’s point of view is that there’s always the risk, however slim, that you could wake up one morning to discover that your team has been relocated to another city in a different state. This happened to San Jose Earthquakes fans in 2006. The entire coaching staff and squad were suddenly relocated to Texas where they became the Houston Dynamo. But the real kicker was that the Dynamo won consecutive MLS Cups in their first two seasons with the Earthquakes’ squad. There was a happy ending, however, as two years later, the Earthquakes franchise founded a new team in San Jose. Although some British clubs have moved to different stadiums in different parts of town, the only notable example of franchise relocation in the American business sense was the highly controversial transplanting of Wimbledon F.C. to Milton Keynes in 2003 where they became MK Dons. The majority of Wimbledon fans did not take kindly to the relocation, regarding the move as the “death of their club”, and in response they decided to form their own club: AFC Wimbledon. After beginning life in the ninth tier of British football in 2002, AFC Wimbledon has enjoyed remarkable success, being promoted five times in nine seasons. They currently compete in League Two (the fourth tier of British football). It has been a phenomenally speedy rise through the league system and one not dissimilar to the original Wimbledon F.C. team that entered the Football League in 1977. This team, under the stewardship of manager Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett, took just nine seasons to reach the old First Division in 1986.
The Future of MLS and Soccer in America
The popularity and standard of soccer in America has been growing steadily for over a decade now. The game is no longer viewed here as the cute little brother of the other “big four” major league sports or the boring game that the rest of the world plays. Even the most casual U.S. soccer fan suddenly becomes a fanatic during World Cup years, and if the national team can advance from their admittedly tough group this summer, then the American soccer epidemic will spread further still.
The beautiful game is now the sport of choice for American parents for their kids to play. Why? Firstly, it is relatively gentle and safe for both boys and girls to take part (especially when compared to other popular U.S. sports such as ice hockey, lacrosse and American football). Second, it is cheap to buy the necessary equipment (ice hockey’s helmets, pads and skates will run you a few hundred dollars), and finally, but most importantly, it’s what the kids want to play. This is due in part to the large Hispanic population of around 50 million people currently residing in the U.S., but also to the fact that America’s best players, your Dempseys and your Donovans, are now regarded as genuine sporting stars on a par with your Mannings and your Jeters.
The biggest clubs from around the world are in no doubt that America is the next biggest soccer market either – that’s why Premier League teams play so many pre-season friendlies in the U.S. This summer, American soccer fans will be treated to exhibition games from British teams such as Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool: Three clubs all trying to sell their “brand” to the USA.
The MLS is currently in a state of healthy expansion too. Two new teams, New York City FC and Orlando City, entered the league in 2015, and of course, David Beckham is looking to open a franchise of his own in Miami. The league now has the sway to attract genuine stars from around the world such as Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, David Villa, and Kaká—all players who could still cut it in Europe’s top leagues but have chosen the MLS. This is a league that is no longer considered a graveyard of once great European players securing a final payday before the old knees give in—it is a highly competitive, entertaining and skillful showcase of fast-paced soccer.
The MLS is still very young, just 19 years-old, and it is still evolving while both expanding and remaining profitable. Comparisons to the English league, an institution that has been around for well over a century, are both unfair and culturally inane. Soccer has to be Americanized in a way that works for the people who consume it. And right now, it seems to be working pretty well.