MLS 101: Explaining the Regular Season

Part three of MLS 101 explains how the regular season works, club conference rankings and playoff positioning is determined.

Catch Up on the MLS 101 series:

Part 1: Explaining the SuperDraft and how to watch online

Part 2: Explaining a Regular Season match

Major League Soccer has undergone some massive changes since its inception in 1996. Casual fans who checked out the new league two decades ago may not even recognize that they’re watching the same MLS in 2017. From the humble beginnings with 10 clubs to the now constantly expanding league, which welcomes Atlanta and Minnesota as the 21st and 22nd club in 2017.

With the sport catching fire more and more each year, there’s always a plethora of new fans trying to figure out how exactly a MLS season works. That’s where MLS 101 comes in!

Nov 29, 2015; Harrison, NJ, USA; The Columbus Crew win the Eastern Conference Championship and raise the trophy as they celebrate their victory against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. The Columbus Crew won with an aggregate score of 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

So are there different conferences?

Major League Soccer has 22 clubs total, 19 in the United States and 3 in Canada. The clubs are divided into two conferences, the Eastern and Western Conferences.

The conferences are divided as follows:

Eastern Conference:

  • Atlanta United FC
  • Chicago Fire
  • Columbus Crew SC
  • D.C. United
  • Montreal Impact
  • New England Revolution
  • New York City FC
  • New York Red Bulls
  • Orlando City SC
  • Philadelphia Union
  • Toronto FC

Western Conference:

  • Colorado Rapids
  • FC Dallas
  • Houston Dynamo
  • LA Galaxy
  • Minnesota United FC
  • Portland Timbers
  • Real Salt Lake
  • San Jose Earthquakes
  • Seattle Sounders FC
  • Sporting Kansas City
  • Vancouver Whitecaps FC

The top six clubs from each conference will move on to the MLS Cup Playoffs at the end of the regular season. The club with the best record of the regular season will be awarded the Supporter’s Shield, which we will cover in another edition of MLS 101.

Short Answer: Yes. Eastern and Western Conference.

Nov 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC pose with the Eastern Conference trophy after defeating the Montreal Impact in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship at BMO Field. Toronto defeated Montreal 5-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC pose with the Eastern Conference trophy after defeating the Montreal Impact in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship at BMO Field. Toronto defeated Montreal 5-2. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

How many games are in the regular season?

Major League Soccer’s regular season consists of each club playing 34 matches.

When, and how long, is the MLS Regular Season?

The regular season begins on March 3rd and runs through October 22nd. After the regular season, the MLS Cup Playoffs begin.

For those of you entering into your first year as a Major League Soccer fan, and don’t have a favorite club yet, we here at MLS Multiplex have broken down the most exciting opening week matchups to help kickstart the 2017 season. You can check that out here.

How do the standings work?

With MLS you can’t strictly follow the records, instead follow the points that each team is awarded. Here’s how points are awarded.

  • Win: 3 points
  • Draw: 1 point
  • Loss: 0 points

How many points each team has will determine the standing in each conferences. The six clubs in the conference with the most points will move on to the playoffs.

Short Answer: Read the long answer, it’s not that long.

Nov 30, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) battles for a ball with Montreal Impact defender Victor Cabrera (36) during the second half in the second leg of the MLS Eastern Conference Championship at BMO Field. Toronto FC won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

What happens if teams have the same amount of points?

Good question. Let’s use an example from the 2016 season to answer this. The Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution both ended the 2016 regular season with 42 points. That landed both clubs in the 6th spot on their standings.

When two clubs share the same amount of total points, their rank will be decided by Goals For (how many total goals the club has scored), Goals Against (how many total goals that have been scored against the team), and the Goal Difference (Goals Scored – Goals Against).

So, in 2016 although the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution each ended the season with 42 points, the Union had a goal difference of -3, which was better than New England’s -10; whereby, Philadelphia clinched the number six spot and moved on to the playoffs.

Short Answer: Goal Difference is used as the tie-breaker.

See? It’s not that complicated after all. So now that you know how the regular season works. In upcoming editions of MLS 101 we’ll break down the Supporter’s Shield and the MLS Cup Playoffs.

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