The MLS is the top professional soccer league in the United States, and the most recent professional league in the country. The league has gone through a few identity and rules changes through the years as it battled to establish a strong hold in the United States. Unlike other major countries, the MLS and soccer in general had to fight for revenue streams and television deals with major professional leagues such as the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL along with big time college sports from the NCAA.
At its inception, the MLS also had to deal with a lack of soccer-specific stadiums in the U.S. with most teams playing in already established NFL stadiums. The MLS also went against the conventional world soccer schedule and set up. Instead of playing from August to May, the league plays from February to October, thus avoiding both the professional/college football schedules and staying away from harsh American weather.
The league also follows the American sports setup and has a postseason tournament or playoffs. They do not have promotion and regulation like nearly all other professional soccer leagues in the world. This protects the owners so their teams are always in the top level without falling down into a lower division with less revenue and popularity.
To bring in new teams, MLS has used the expansion method, granting new franchises to cities who bid for them. They have also allowed teams to move to other cities, something unique to American sports. The league also uses centralized salaries and a draft instead of teams just signing players as free agents like is done in most world soccer leagues.
The MLS was built off the popularity of the 1994 World Cup and has grown with the success of the U.S. Men’s National Team. The league has also changed over the years, adding prominent players who have left Europe, Mexico and South America to take advantage of the marketing power of the United States markets.
The MLS came to life at the same time as the United States was prepping to host the World Cup for the first time. Other men’s professional leagues had tried before, most notably the North American Soccer League from 1968-1984 and multiple indoor soccer leagues. The NASL had some success in the 1970s with prominent players like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cryuff, Gerd Muller and George Best at the end of their careers. The 1978 Soccer Cup even drew over 70,000 fans but the league folded in 1984 on the heels of a global recession and salary disputes between the players union and the NASL.
The United States Soccer Federation won the bid for the 1994 World Cup. As part of that bid in 1988, they promised to establish a professional soccer league to grow the sport in the country. Major League Soccer was first developed in 1993 with plans to start in 1996, following the World Cup. The World Cup was the most financially successful tournament ever, breaking attendance records with an average of 68,991 fans and establishing both a television market for the sport in the U.S. and new fan bases.
The league capitalized by signing a majority of the popular players off the USMNT that made a run to the knockout round of the 1994 World Cup before losing a hard-fought battle to eventual champion Brazil, 1-0. Tab Ramos, Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda, Cobi Jones, Brad Fiedel and Marcelo Balboa were among the big names signed by the league from the USMNT.
The first season included 10 teams in major U.S. markets: Los Angeles Galaxy, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz, New England Revolution, NY/NJ MetroStars, D.C. United, Tampa Bay Mutiny, Columbus Crew, San Jose Clash and Colorado Rapids. The major players were assigned, or allocated, to teams to balance rosters and for the most part they went to teams where they were from.
The league also added a couple international players like Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos, Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama, Italy’s Roberto Donadoni, Bolivia’s Marco Etcheverry and El Salvador’s Raul Diaz Arce.
The first game was on April 6, 1996 as 31,000 fans watched San Jose beat D.C. United. Instead of having ties in regulation games, the MLS used a unique penalty shootout that resembled that of the NHL and the clock counted down, ending each half at 0:00 with no stoppage time. Those experimental rules went away in 1999.
The Tampa Bay Mutiny had the best regular season record in 1996, but they lost in the second round of the playoffs. D.C. United beat LA Galaxy 3-2 in the first-ever MLS Cup with a golden goal by Eddie Pope.
D.C United won the title again in 1997 after also having the best record in the regular season. The league expanded in 1998, adding Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion to the league. The Fire won a championship in their first season, but the USMNT crashed out of the 1998 World Cup in last place and the quality of play in the MLS was blamed.
The league reportedly lost over $200 million in its first five seasons and they got some help from the NFL. Don Garber, a former NFL executive, took over as league commissioner while NFL owners Lamar Hung, Robert Kraft and Philip Anschutz became investors in the league.
D.C United became the first team to win a second title when they beat the Galaxy in 1999. Also in 1999, Columbus built the first soccer-specific stadium in the United States and Historic Crew Stadium became home to some big USMNT moments as well. The Kansas City Wiz won in 2000 and San Jose,who changed their name to the Earthquakes, won in 2001. The Earthquakes were boosted by young American playmaker Landon Donovan in his first season on loan from Bayer Leverkusen.
The league had its first big changes in 2002 as both Tampa Bay and Miami were eliminated as franchises, taking the MLS back to 10 teams. A surprising run by the USMNT to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals lifted popularity for the second half of the season and more than 60,000 fans attended the 2002 MLS Cup as the Galaxy won for the first time.
However the success of the USMNT saw some of the stars leave for Europe. Tim Howard went to Manchester United for $4 million while Brian McBride, Brad Friedel, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Mathis all went to Europe between 2002 and 2006.
Starting in 2003, the league added more soccer specific stadiums, largely funded by team owners. The league also saw name changes as the Dallas Burn became FC Dallas in 2005 while Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA (in Los Angeles) started play in 1995. The Earthquakes moved to Houston in 2006 as the Dynamo and won two straight titles.
The league made a major change in 2007 to attract international talent while also expanding into Canada with the addition of Toronto FC. The league established the Designated Player Rule which allowed teams to sign three players outside of the salary cap. The first player signed was world superstar David Beckham who joined LA Galaxy for $6.5 million per season.
The DP rule not only brought in stars from Europe, but it allowed American players like McBride and Claudio Reyna to return home. Meanwhile young stars off the USMNT like Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore went to Europe on lucrative deals for the league. San Jose returned to the league in 2008 and Seattle Sounders joined as an expansion team in 2009, shattering league attendance records.
Columbus won their first title in 2008 with Real Salt Lake taking the 2009 title over the Galaxy. The Philadelphia Union joined the league in 2010 with a brand new stadium and the rebranded NY Red Bulls opened soccer-specific Red Bull Arena with French start Thierry Henry. After Colorado Rapids won in 2010, Beckham teamed with Landon Donovan to win the Galaxy a championship in 2011 and 2012.
Vancouver Whitecaps, Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact joined the league over the next two seasons and the MLS outdrew the NBA and NHL in average attendance for the first time. The league also brought Dempsey, Beasley and Michael Bradley back from Europe, building off their popularity from the USMNT run to the knockout round in the 2010 World Cup.
MLS continued to expand in the mid 2010s adding New York City FC, Orlando City SC and Atlanta United FC but losing Chivas USA. Los Angeles FC came in next, along with Minnesota United. Meanwhile the league continued to bring in veteran superstars from Europe as Frank Lampard, David Villa, Steven Gerard, Andrea Pirlo, Kaka and Didier Drogba all had stints in the league.
After the Galaxy repeated in 2012, the MLS Cup was won by five different teams over the next seven years. Sporting KC, Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC and Atlanta United all claimed titles before Sounders won again in 2019. Meanwhile Nashville SC, FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami, owned by Beckham, joined the league.
The 2020 season was interrupted by COVID in March. The league resumed in July with a MLS is Back Tournament behind closed doors in Orlando. The tournament had a World Cup format with group play and a knockout round, ultimately won by Portland. When the regular season resumed, fans were not allowed and the Crew won their second title.
The league played a limited travel schedule in 2021 while welcoming Austin FC to the league. New York City FC won their first title with fans back in the stadiums at most locations. The 2022 season saw Charlotte FC join the league with plans to expand to St. Louis in 2023.
The MLS record book is a little different than most soccer leagues. First of all the league has the playoff system and spent early seasons with overtime and no ties. Also the amount of games played has varied from year to year with expansion having an impact on the number of teams in the league.
The Galaxy were the first team to win five MLS Cups, breaking a tie with D.C. United with their win in 2014. The Galaxy and United both have four Supporters’ Shield trophies in their cabinets.
The 2021 New England Revolution set a new points record with 73. That broke the record set by LAFC of 72 points in 2019 while New York Red Bulls had 71 in 2018. The Tampa Bay Mutiny hold the record for least points with 14 in 2001.
Donovan retired in 2016 with a MLS record 145 goals but his mark was surpassed by Chris Wondolowski just a couple seasons later. Wondolowski retired after the 2021 season with a record 171 goals. Donovan also holds the career record with 136 assists, one more than Steve Ralson had from 1996-2010.
Carlos Vela scored 34 goals in 2019 for LAFC, a single-season record. Josef Martinez for Atlanta United in 2018 and Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the Galaxy in 2019 are the only others to net 30 or more goals in a season.
Valderrama’s 26 assists in 2000 still stands as a single-season record while Tony Meola’s 16 shutouts in 2000 is also a record.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando has played in the most MLS games with 514 appearances between 2000 and 2019. He also holds the record for most shutouts with 154. Defender Kyle Beckerman has a record 498 appearances by a field player.
How do the MLS odds work?
MLS soccer odds are widely available and set up in a three-way-bet and a two-way-bet. The three-way bet includes the option of a draw. So if the Galaxy are facing LAFC at home the odds could be set as Galaxy -110 to win, LAFC +150 to win and a draw at +180.
In the two-way bet the draw is not an option. This would leave the Galaxy at -130 and LAFC at +110.
Regular MLS best bets
MLS bets have multiple options as well, including total goals, a goal line, team goals and individual bets. The goal line, or the spread has multiple options, usually starting at +/- 0.5 and running to +/- 3.5. A bet on Chicago Fire +2.5 against the Philadelphia Union wins as long as the Union don’t win by three or more.
In total team goals, a better is wagering just on one team. A bet for LAFC to score more than 1.5 goals wins when they score two or more. Total goals, or the over/under, uses both teams so LAFC 3, Galaxy 1 covers anything from over 0.5 to over 3.5
Betting on players is another option. Goal scorers will have a first goal, last goal, penalty kick, free kick or anytime goal option. The odds will fluctuate depending on the player, the game and the style of play. Finding players in good goal-scoring form or with good matchups
MLS Futures bets explained
There are multiple MLS futures markets to bet on both before and during the season. The MLS offers even more options than other leagues because of the playoffs. Bettors can make wagers on teams to win the regular season, teams to make the playoffs and teams to win the MLS Cup.
While there is no relegation to bet on, fans can bet on first place in the regular season, and the playoffs. An individual future bet can be placed on the top goal scorer in the league for the regular season, known as the Golden Boot. Another wager can be placed on the individual to win the league Most Valuable Player.
MLS Betting tips
Betting on the MLS is a lot like betting on other leagues. It is important to do research and learn about the teams, the coaches, the style of play and the schedule. Travel and weather can both be an issue in the MLS with some teams having long travel between games. Extreme heat can be an issue in the summer in some of the locations while games at the beginning and end of the season can still deal with cold and even snow.
Following teams on social media can help. This will provide player news, lineups, suspensions and player moves that can impact odds.
How to bet on MLS?
MLS betting is available at nearly every sportsbook. Shopping around will provide the best bets and can also provide odds boosts, profit boosts and other specials.
MLS Odds Frequently Asked Questions
A typical MLS season starts in late February/early March and goes until October. The playoffs begin a week after the regular season ends and usually continue into December with the MLS Cup Final. The schedule will fluctuate during World Cup years but the MLS takes less international breaks than other leagues in a normal year.
The MLS season doesn’t have a true set format. With expansion teams coming in regularly, the league has changed formats multiple times. The league typically plays around 34 regular season games.
The league has two conferences, the East and the West. The top seven teams in both conferences make the playoffs with the top seeds getting a first round bye. The winner of the MLS Cup is considered the league champion.
The winner of the MLS Cup Final qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League. The Seattle Sounders became the first MLS team to ever win the CCL in 2022 and they qualified for the FIFA Club World Cup. The MLS puts at least four teams in the CCL every year and could have a fifth team if the Canadian Championships are won by Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver.
Also while those three teams play in the Canadian Championships every year, all the other MLS teams play in the U.S. Open Cup. Both competitions are knockout style tournaments. In addition, MLS has recently started a competition with Mexico’s Liga MX called the Leagues Cup.
No. Unlike leagues in Europe or South America, the MLS does not have promotion/relegation. The teams are all locked into the MLS. The teams at the bottom of the standings miss out on the playoffs but get higher draft picks before the next season.
The MLS transfer market is also different from that of European teams. With the season starting in February teams often add players in December/January. Rosters will freeze for the start of the season and then freeze again 30 days before the end of the regular season.
For international players, MLS can request a transfer form the league between February and May and again in July/August. Sometimes those players are still in their league competition in Europe or South America and may elect to finish the season and join MLS in June.