Translated by Juan Arango.
The 2020 season in the United States started out strong. Many years welcoming stars like Raúl, David Villa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or David Beckham as well as the way Inter Miami, promoted by Beckham himself, burst onto the scene, have created the expectation that this sport (both spectacle and business sides) seems to have finally arrived in that country.
We have to keep in mind that they call our football, “soccer”, in order to avoid confusion with their most popular sport: Football. American football has a unique grace. It is a combination of rugby with players wearing leggings, helmets, and shoulder pads while using mostly their hands.
That said, “soccer” in the United States is growing. And apart from the name, it has several differences compared with professional football as we know it in Europe. For starters, they do not have promotion and relegation, the clubs have a salary cap established for signings except when it comes to their franchise players, they play all-star games and the teams are not owned by their “owners” amongst other things.
This was going to be an 800-word post, but as we began writing we saw it was going to end up a bit longer. This is why we decided to do this in chapters. The best thing to do is to crack open a beer, grab some nachos, and enjoy the piece because the story told here is well worth it.
CHAPTER I: The Competition
The structure established within soccer in the United States is a system of championships between clubs ranging from professional to amateur football. The professional leagues are governed by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) while the amateur leagues fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA). The latter is the only entity authorized to manage amateur leagues according to the USSF.
These leagues are independent and are not associated amongst each other. There is no promotion and relegation between them. In other words, there is no first, second and third division, per se, but the league that is considered the top flight has that designation based on the number of fans that follow it and the amount of investment that it has (MLS which we will talk about below).
In addition to clubs in the United States, these leagues also have teams in Canada, Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda and Puerto Rico.
The system of leagues in the United States is commonly referred to as the “American soccer pyramid”.
Officially there are three levels in the professional football pyramid: Major League Soccer, considered the first division, the second division is the USL Championship and USL League One is the third.
There are several other leagues “below” that range from the amateur to semiprofessional levels.
The USSF organizes tournaments like the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (or US Open Cup). This cup is named as such as it includes teams from every league. For the 2020 edition of the tournament, there are 100 teams participating from every league including those at the amateur level.
In reality, this tournament is not that open compared to other leagues: the US Open Cup is a tournament exclusively for teams in the United States.
The tournament is the equivalent to the FA Cup in England, the Copa MX in Mexico or the Copa del Rey in Spain.
The winner of this tournament would enter the final phase of the CONCACAF Champions League.
MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER (MLS)
It is the NBA of this country’s soccer. It is the “first division”, the most followed league and the one that has the most money and brings together the best professional players from the United States and Canada.
The season begins in March and ends in November. This, like many other sports, was interrupted due to COVID-19. The 2020 campaign had 26 teams after the addition of David Beckham’s Inter Miami. The league consists of 23 teams from the United States and three from Canada. These teams are divided into the Eastern and Western conferences based on their geographical location on the map.
26 is also the number of teams that MLS plans to be participating in a summer made-for-TV tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, within the Disney World complex in Orlando. With this, the MLS is proclaimed the first major sports league in the United States to return to action after COVID-19. According to an article published in the print version of the Miami Herald, MLS could lose up to $ 1 billion due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Not all the details of the deal for the tournament are known yet, but according to Miami Herald, players agreed to a 5 percent pay cut for the 2020 season, less than the league recently proposed, and agreed to a one-year extension of the CBA to 2025. Also, players will accept a reduced share of media right fees in 2023.
Players are expected to start training for the tournament on June 25, beginning early July, although games will be fans-free.
Regular Season and Playoffs.
The regular season is divided into 26 teams in two conferences- east and west. During the season, every team plays 34 matches. They do not play in a round-robin, home, and away format. The majority of the games are played against teams from the same conference. They could face each other two or three times depending on the calendar and the number of teams playing in the league that season. A few of those games are played against teams from the other conference.
At the end of the regular season, the MLS Supporter’s Shield is awarded to the team that obtained the best overall record amongst the two conferences. This awards that team a spot into the CONCACAF Champions League. The same goes for the team that earns the highest amount of points in the other conference, although they do not win a trophy.
During the season, they play the MLS All-Star Game. This is a friendly game that brings together the best players in the league as they face a foreign side. This season, they were scheduled to play against the Liga MX All-Stars, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, the MLS All-Stars played against Atlético Madrid in the city of Orlando.
That 2019 All-Star team had some brilliant players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nani, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney– players that played previously in some of the top leagues in Europe.
Illustrious players from European leagues were part of the 2019 All-Star team: Schweinsteiger, Nani, Ibrahimovic, Rooney.
Once the regular season comes to a close, the top seven teams in each conference take part in the playoffs. This tournament is played in a single-elimination format that determines the winner of the MLS Cup. Of the 14 teams qualified, the top seed in each conference gets a bye in the first round (see table). The final is played at the venue of the team with the best record.
The MLS Cup is the biggest attraction in football- excuse me, soccer- in the United States.
Within MLS there are also minor cups called Rivalry Cups. These tournaments within the league are created as competitions between teams from the same region, although there are exceptions. Two or three teams each year, usually the same ones, take part in these competitions where the winner receives the trophy at the end of the season. This is awarded to the team with the most points in matches between the participating teams.
For example, this would be like adding up the points earned in league matches that Alavés, Athletic Club, or Real Sociedad earned against each other. Or games that are played between Andalusian sides.
Many of the Rivalry Cups have long traditions, such as the Atlantic Cup between New York Red Bulls and DC United. This cup started in 1996, the same year that MLS was founded.
A brief history of the MLS
Major League Soccer was founded in 1996 after the United States hosted the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The objective was to become one of the great leagues in the world and one of the major leagues in American sports.
The inaugural season consisted of 10 teams. Despite the growth of the game in the US, the first years were filled with difficulty for MLS and they lost millions. The teams were playing in mostly empty American football stadiums. In 2002, two teams- Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion– were withdrawn from the league.
The construction of soccer-specific stadiums was the turning point for the economic crisis that was haunting MLS. In 1999, Columbus Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio was inaugurated. The venue had a capacity of 22,000 spectators and it became the first soccer stadium of its kind in the United States.
Since then, MLS has expanded into 26 teams with an average attendance of 20,000 spectators per match. These numbers make Major League Soccer the third best-attended league in the United States behind the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB). It is also the seventh best-attended football league in the world
As we mentioned before, the last team to play their inaugural match was Inter Miami when they faced LAFC on March 1st, 2020.
The intra-history of how this team came to be will be discussed more in-depth in the next chapter.