How MLS works 2024: Playoff format, league rules, & expansion clubs in Major League Soccer

The 2024 Major League Soccer season is underway, with Lionel Messi and Inter Miami gunning for glory in the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner’s first full campaign in the United States.

Messi caused a sensation when he joined Inter Miami midway through 2023 on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain and duly inspired his new team to success in the Leagues Cup.

But Inter were unable to make the playoffs, as the Columbus Crew won their third MLS Cup. With another of Messi’s old Barcelona allies, Luis Suarez, joining Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets in Gerardo Martino’s squad, hopes are high that Miami can make a concerted bid for the top honours this time around.

They got underway with a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake, although concerns over the age profile of the squad and salary cap worries mean it’s unlikely to be plain sailing.

The Sporting News brings you an overview of everything you need to know for the 2024 MLS campaign.

MORE: MLS top goal scorer 2024: Updated Major League Soccer rankings as Lionel Messi aims for Golden Boot award

How to watch MLS in 2024

Fans around the globe can access every single match across the 2024 Major League Soccer campaign by signing up for MLS Season pass.

The price for the full season subscription is $99, while there is also a monthly option that costs $14.99 per month.

For those who are already subscribers to Apple TV+, the price for MLS Season Pass is offered at a discounted rate. The full season is just $79 for those already signed up to Apple TV+ in full, while the monthly pricing is $12.99.

  Subscription Apple TV+ price
Monthly $14.99 $12.99
Full Season $99 $79

MORE: Does MLS Season Pass have a free trial?

How MLS works

Major League Soccer consists of 29 clubs from the USA and Canada who play a 34-match regular season from February to October with 18 of the 29 clubs (the top nine from each of the Eastern and Western conferences) advancing to the playoffs at season’s end. A new postseason format was introduced in 2023.

In addition to league play, MLS clubs also participate in domestic cup competitions (U.S. Open Cup for U.S.-based clubs or Canadian Championship for Canadian teams), and the best teams also feature in a North American continental competition (CONCACAF Champions League).

During the close season, MLS club’s participation in the U.S. Open Cup has become a hot-button issue. In December 2023, Major League Soccer attempted to withdraw its teams from the 111-year-old competition before walking back when proposals to field its developmental MLS Next Pro teams were rebuffed by U.S. Soccer.

“We will continue to do what we can to support the U.S. Open Cup, but we’re not going to do it in a way where the entire onus on making that tournament work is on Major League Soccer,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said during the Inter Miami vs. Real Salt Lake season opener.

“It needs the support from our federation, they’ve pledged to show more support to that. It needs to make more sense for our players and for our clubs. At this point, we’re subsidizing that tournament.”

Major League Soccer is different from most leagues around the world in that every team follows the same roster and budget rules. Each club ultimately makes its own decisions on how it builds its roster and spends its money, but it must do so within the guidelines set forth by the league.

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez

(Inter Miami CF Communications)

Among the league rules are maximum salary budgets that prevent clubs from paying players over a certain amount of money, though exceptions exist as in the case of “designated players.” Teams can pay up to three designated players a salary that exceeds the regular maximum limits. This is meant to allow clubs the freedom to sign players who may demand a higher salary than the budget rules allow for, helping to attract big-name global talent and explain Inter’s recent superstar influx.

MLS teams can also use specific amounts of ‘allocation money’ (general or targeted allocation money) to pay down a player’s salary so that it fits within the club’s player budget. There are rules for how general allocation money and targeted allocation money can be used and how much of it teams have every season.

When it comes to building a squad, there are various methods for signing domestic talent, international players, young internationals, or academy players. These are all designed in a way to ensure that there is competitive balance and that teams have an equal opportunity to acquire players. The annual college player draft is one of those examples.

Unlike many top-flight leagues around the world, MLS does not have promotion or relegation even though lower divisions do exist in the USA and Canada. As a closed league, the same MLS teams compete every year, no matter their position in the standings the season prior. However, teams that finish in the bottom positions typically receive the top picks in the various player selection drafts the following year in the spirit of competitive balance.

MORE: Lionel Messi odds, props: How to bet on the GOAT, Inter Miami and MLS futures

MLS teams and expansion

The 2024 MLS season is the first since 2016 not to have any expansion franchises joining the league.

MLS opens new spots in the league for either new clubs or lower-league clubs to apply for membership. New clubs pay an expansion fee to join the league. St. Louis SC shelled out $200 million for their 2023 debut. San Diego FC is due to join the league in 2025 and take the overall number of participants to 30.

Lower league clubs do occasionally get added as well, such as in 2020 when Nashville SC made the jump from the USL Championship.

MORE: MLS expansion in 2023 to 29 teams, and plans for further expansion

MLS trophies: Supporters’ Shield & MLS Cup

Major League Soccer awards two major titles every season, and while one is certainly more coveted than the other, both represent prestigious silverware for clubs to add to the trophy case.

The team that garners the most points throughout the regular season, regardless of conference, finishes as the regular season champion and earns the Supporters’ Shield. Last year’s regular season champion was FC Cincinnati, which claimed its first shield.

While many feel this recognizes the best overall team throughout a 34-match regular season, it is not thought of as the most coveted award, and the Supporters’ Shield winner is not typically referred to as the MLS ‘champion.’

That title is reserved for the team that emerges from the MLS playoffs and wins the MLS Cup, which is the top prize every season.

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MLS playoff format

The MLS playoffs were overhauled for 2023. Nine teams from each conference progressed to the postseason. The teams seeded one to seven in each conference progressed to the first-round proper, while those placed eighth and ninth contested one-off wild card matches.

Previously, teams play a single-elimination knockout bracket to decide the champion. In 2023, the Round of 16 was a best-of-three series with no draws. The first team to claim two victories then advanced to the more traditional single-elimination format used for conference semifinals, conference finals, and MLS Cup final.

The last team standing at the end of the knockout bracket wins the MLS Cup and is considered the MLS champion. In 2022 LAFC won both the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield, although this double is relatively rare and it was only the eighth time since the league’s formation in 1996 that it had been completed.

MORE: Lionel Messi injury history: Full list of injuries for Inter Miami star from Barcelona, PSG, Argentina

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MLS All-Star Game

During the summer, Major League Soccer puts on an All-Star Game that has evolved over the course of the league’s existence.

After playing an East vs. West All-Star format for several years, the league then began to invite other clubs from around the world during their offseason to play a summer friendly against the MLS All-Star squad. In 2021, this format was altered to instead see the MLS All-Stars take on the Liga MX All-Stars from Mexico.

This season, the match will be played in Columbus. on July 24. The format and opponent have yet to be determined.

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What is Leagues Cup?

The Major League Soccer takes a break during the middle of the season for the Leagues Cup tournament, where every club from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX take part in a World Cup-style format.

This was the competition where Messi enjoyed his stunning breakout run at Inter, and the reason why his club is participating in the CONCACAF Champions League this season. There are three qualification spots up for grabs for the highest-ranked teams in the Leagues Cup.

The tournament will unfold from July 21-Aug. 19, 2023, with every match also streaming worldwide on Apple TV.

There are three berths to the CONCACAF Champions League up for grabs in the tournament, which will start with a group stage (top two teams advance) and proceed to knockout rounds for a total of 77 matches. The single-match knockout rounds will start with 32 clubs after 15 teams are eliminated during the group stage.

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