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MLS Soccer Rules


In this comprehensive article, we delve into the unique aspects of Major League Soccer that set it apart from other soccer leagues worldwide. Aimed at enthusiasts seeking a deeper understanding of MLS-specific rules, this article covers topics such as roster rules, salary cap and allocation money, player acquisition methods, competition structure, and the implementation of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and disciplinary measures. By exploring these MLS-specific rules and nuances, fans will gain a better appreciation for the league’s competitive landscape and the challenges faced by clubs. This knowledge will enable fans to engage more deeply with the sport and contribute to the continued growth and development of Major League Soccer in North America.

MLS-specific Roster Rules

One of the key aspects that sets Major League Soccer apart from other leagues is its unique roster rules. These rules are designed to maintain competitive balance, promote the development of domestic talent, and ensure financial stability within the league. In this section, we will delve into the intricacies of MLS roster rules, covering senior, supplemental, and reserve rosters, as well as domestic and international player slots.

Roster size and composition

Senior roster, supplemental roster, and reserve roster

MLS clubs are allowed a roster of up to 30 players, which is divided into three distinct groups: the senior roster, the supplemental roster, and the reserve roster.

  • Senior roster: This consists of up to 20 players, including a combination of domestic and international players. The salaries of these players count towards the team’s salary cap. These are typically the core players of a team and are most likely to feature in matches regularly.
  • Supplemental roster: This includes up to four additional players who do not count towards the salary cap. These players are either on reserve minimum salaries or qualify as Homegrown Players (more on this rule later). The supplemental roster allows teams to develop and maintain a pipeline of talent without overloading their salary budgets.
  • Reserve roster: Finally, the reserve roster can have up to six players. These players must be either Generation Adidas players, Homegrown Players, or players on reserve minimum salaries. Like the supplemental roster, salaries of players on the reserve roster do not count towards the salary cap.

Domestic and international player slots

Each MLS team is allocated a certain number of international player slots, which are tradable among clubs. These slots are meant for players who do not possess U.S. or Canadian citizenship, permanent residency, or other special status (such as refugee or asylum status). The number of international player slots per team may vary, but typically ranges from eight to ten. Teams can acquire additional international slots through trades with other clubs, but these trades are subject to league approval and are temporary, with the slots reverting to the original team after a specified period.

Domestic player slots, on the other hand, are for players who are either U.S. or Canadian citizens or have other special status that allows them to be considered domestic. There are no limits on the number of domestic players a team can have on their roster.

Designated Player Rule

Origins and rationale

The Designated Player Rule, also known as the “Beckham Rule,” was introduced in 2007 to allow Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs to sign high-profile players who would otherwise be unaffordable under the league’s salary cap restrictions. The rule is named after the English superstar David Beckham, who joined the LA Galaxy in 2007 as the first designated player in MLS history.

The primary rationale behind implementing the Designated Player Rule was to raise the overall quality of play in the league and to increase its global appeal by attracting world-class talent. By doing so, MLS aimed to grow its fan base, improve its competitiveness, and enhance its marketability.

Current rules and restrictions

Under the Designated Player Rule, each MLS club is allowed to have up to three Designated Players (DPs) on their roster. DPs are players whose total compensation and acquisition costs exceed the maximum salary budget charge, which is set by the league each year. A club can use its allocation money to “buy down” a DP’s salary budget charge to the maximum limit, effectively freeing up space in the salary cap.

While there is no upper limit on the amount a club can spend on a DP’s salary, only a portion of the player’s salary counts towards the salary cap. For players aged 24 or older, the salary cap hit is $612,500. For players aged 23 or younger, the salary cap charge is lower to encourage clubs to invest in young talent: $200,000 for those aged 20 to 23, and $150,000 for those aged under 20.

Designated Players may be signed through various methods, including international transfers, MLS SuperDraft selections, or Homegrown Player signings. However, the acquisition of a DP must be in compliance with the league’s roster rules and player acquisition methods.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that if a DP is signed in the middle of the season, their salary cap hit will be prorated based on the number of games remaining in the season.

While the Designated Player Rule has attracted some of the world’s biggest soccer stars to MLS, such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Zlatan Ibrahimović, it has also received criticism for potentially creating an uneven playing field within the league. Critics argue that the rule benefits wealthier clubs that can afford to sign high-priced talent, which may lead to competitive imbalances.

Despite these concerns, the Designated Player Rule has undeniably had a positive impact on the growth and visibility of MLS. The influx of star power has attracted more fans to games, increased media coverage, and elevated the league’s profile on the global stage. Moreover, the presence of international stars in the league has helped improve the overall quality of play, fostering a more competitive environment that ultimately benefits all teams and players in the league.

Homegrown Player Rule

Definition and requirements

The Homegrown Player Rule was established by Major League Soccer to encourage clubs to develop and promote talent from their own youth academies. This rule allows teams to sign players to professional contracts directly from their academies without exposing them to the MLS SuperDraft or competing with other teams for their signatures.

To be considered a Homegrown Player, a prospect must meet specific requirements set by the league. The player must have:

  • Resided in the club’s Home Territory for at least one year;
  • Been a member of the club’s youth academy for a minimum of one year;
  • Participated in the academy for at least 80% of the available training sessions and matches during that year;
  • Maintained their amateur status during their time in the academy.

If a player fulfills these criteria, they can be signed directly to the club’s senior roster, supplemental roster, or reserve roster as a Homegrown Player.

Benefits for clubs and player development

The Homegrown Player Rule offers numerous benefits to both clubs and players, which have contributed to the development of soccer in North America.

For clubs, the rule provides several advantages:

  • Exclusive rights: By having exclusive rights to sign their academy products, clubs can secure promising talent without the risk of losing them to other teams in the league.
  • Salary cap relief: Homegrown Players’ salaries do not count against the salary cap, allowing teams to invest more in other areas of their roster.
  • Player loyalty: Players developed through a club’s academy are more likely to have a strong connection to the organization, which can translate to increased loyalty and commitment on the field.
  • Cost-effective talent: Developing players from within is generally more cost-effective than acquiring talent through transfers, trades, or drafts.

For players, the Homegrown Player Rule offers several developmental benefits:

  • Pathway to professional soccer: The rule provides a clear and direct pathway for young players to progress from youth academies to professional soccer, making the prospect of a soccer career more attainable.
  • Familiar environment: Players can continue to develop in a familiar environment with coaches and staff who have been instrumental in their growth, easing the transition to the professional level.
  • Opportunities for playing time: Homegrown Players often receive more playing time and opportunities than they might if they were drafted or signed from another club, allowing them to further develop their skills and gain valuable experience.

The Homegrown Player Rule has been instrumental in the growth and development of soccer in the United States and Canada. The rule has incentivized clubs to invest more heavily in their youth academies and has helped produce numerous talented players who have gone on to represent their clubs, national teams, and even play in some of the world’s top leagues. Notable Homegrown Players in MLS history include DeAndre Yedlin, Tyler Adams, Jordan Morris, and Alphonso Davies. As the league continues to evolve, the Homegrown Player Rule will remain a cornerstone in the development of domestic talent and the overall growth of soccer in North America.

Salary Cap and Allocation Money

Purpose and impact on competition

The salary cap is a fundamental component of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) financial structure, designed to create a level playing field for all teams in the league. The primary purpose of the salary cap is to control costs, promote financial stability, and maintain competitive balance among clubs.

By imposing a limit on the total amount each team can spend on player salaries, the salary cap prevents wealthier clubs from dominating the league by simply outspending their competitors. This system ensures that clubs must build their rosters strategically, focusing on scouting, player development, and shrewd acquisitions to succeed.

The salary cap has been largely successful in achieving its goals, as evidenced by the parity in MLS compared to other top soccer leagues worldwide. The league has seen numerous different champions and playoff teams in its history, creating an unpredictable and exciting competitive environment for fans.

Cap limits and exceptions

Each season, MLS sets a salary cap limit, which dictates the maximum amount of money a team can spend on player salaries. As of 2021, the salary cap was set at $4,900,000, with an additional $1,525,000 in allocation money available to each team. It’s important to note that these figures are subject to change annually.

While the salary cap applies to the majority of a team’s roster, there are certain exceptions and mechanisms that allow clubs to exceed the cap:

  • Designated Players: As discussed in the previous section, each club can sign up to three Designated Players, whose salaries only partially count towards the cap.
  • Homegrown Players: Salaries of Homegrown Players do not count against the salary cap, incentivizing clubs to develop talent from within their academies.
  • Allocation Money: Both General Allocation Money (GAM) and Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) can be used to “buy down” a player’s salary cap hit, effectively allowing teams to spend more on player salaries without exceeding the cap.

General Allocation Money (GAM)

GAM is frequently utilized in player transactions and trades within MLS. For instance, a club may trade GAM to another team in exchange for a player they believe can make an immediate impact on their roster. Alternatively, a team may use GAM to buy down a player’s salary cap hit, enabling them to sign an additional player without exceeding the cap.

General Allocation Money (GAM) is a strategic tool provided by MLS to help clubs manage their salary cap and build competitive rosters. GAM can be used in various ways, including:

  • Reducing the salary cap hit of a player, effectively creating more cap space;
  • Offsetting acquisition costs, such as transfer fees and loan fees;
  • Signing new players or re-signing existing players to new contracts;
  • Trading with other MLS clubs in exchange for players, draft picks, or other assets.

Each team receives an annual allotment of GAM, with the amount determined by the league. Additionally, clubs can receive GAM as compensation for various scenarios, such as missing the playoffs, selling a player to an international club, or having a player called up to their national team for specific tournaments.

GAM is frequently utilized in player transactions and trades within MLS. For instance, a club may trade GAM to another team in exchange for a player they believe can make an immediate impact on their roster. Alternatively, a team may use GAM to buy down a player’s salary cap hit, enabling them to sign an additional player without exceeding the cap.

Targeted Allocation Money (TAM)

Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) is a unique financial mechanism in MLS that helps clubs acquire or retain high-quality players without violating the salary cap. Introduced in 2015, TAM provides clubs with additional resources to sign players who are expected to have an immediate impact on the field. TAM can be used to either buy down the salary budget charge of a player, allowing the club to sign another player, or to directly sign or retain players earning more than the maximum budget charge but less than a certain threshold, which has increased over the years.

Clubs receive an annual allotment of TAM, and it can be used in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Signing new players from outside MLS
  • Re-signing an existing MLS player to a new contract
  • Converting a Designated Player to a non-Designated Player by buying down their budget charge
  • Trading TAM with other MLS clubs

Examples of transactions involving TAM

TAM has played a significant role in several high-profile transactions in MLS. Here are a few examples:

  • In 2016, the LA Galaxy used TAM to sign French midfielder Romain Alessandrini. He quickly became a key player for the Galaxy, contributing goals and assists during his time with the club.
  • In 2017, Toronto FC used TAM to acquire Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez, who played a crucial role in their historic treble-winning season, which included the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield, and Canadian Championship.
  • In 2018, Atlanta United used TAM to sign Argentine midfielder Ezequiel Barco, then a highly sought-after young talent. Barco has since developed into one of the league’s top attacking players.
  • In 2019, the Portland Timbers used TAM to sign Argentine forward Brian Fernández from Club Necaxa in Liga MX. He made an immediate impact, setting an MLS record by scoring in each of his first five games with the club.

These examples demonstrate how TAM has allowed MLS clubs to enhance their rosters with talented players, promoting a higher level of competition and quality across the league.

Player Acquisition Methods

MLS SuperDraft

The MLS SuperDraft is an annual event where clubs can acquire the rights to college soccer players and other eligible players from North America. The draft consists of several rounds, with each team having one pick per round. The order of the selections is determined by the clubs’ performance in the previous season, with the lowest-ranked team picking first. Eligible players typically include college seniors, Generation Adidas players, and non-collegiate players who have been approved by the league.

Notable SuperDraft success stories

The SuperDraft has produced numerous successful players who have made significant contributions to their clubs and the league. Some notable examples include:

  • Clint Dempsey, drafted by the New England Revolution in 2004, went on to become a star player in MLS and the English Premier League. He is also one of the all-time leading goal scorers for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
  • Michael Bradley, a 2004 SuperDraft pick by the MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls), has had a successful career both in MLS and top European leagues, and has served as captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
  • Graham Zusi, selected by Sporting Kansas City in 2009, has been an integral part of the team’s success, winning multiple trophies and earning regular call-ups to the U.S. Men’s National Team.
  • Cyle Larin, drafted by Orlando City SC in 2015, set a then-record for goals by a rookie and later moved to Europe, playing for clubs like Beşiktaş and currently Zulte Waregem.

College and youth player signings

College signings and Generation Adidas program

The Generation Adidas program is a partnership between MLS and U.S. Soccer aimed at identifying and developing elite college underclassmen and youth national team players. These players are signed to professional contracts by the league and made available in the SuperDraft. Generation Adidas players do not count against a club’s salary budget, and they receive educational grants to continue their college education if their professional soccer career does not work out.

Academy signings and youth development

MLS clubs invest heavily in their academies to identify and develop young talent. Homegrown Players can be signed directly from a club’s academy to its first team without going through the SuperDraft. This process allows clubs to retain and develop their most promising prospects, fostering a strong connection between the club and its local talent.

Player trades and transfers

Trade rules and restrictions

MLS clubs can trade players, draft picks, allocation money (GAM and TAM), and international roster slots with other clubs within the league. Trades must adhere to league rules and regulations, and all traded players’ contracts must fit within the receiving club’s salary budget. Trades can occur during specific periods, such as the primary and secondary transfer windows and the trade window following the MLS Cup.

International transfer windows and regulations

MLS clubs can sign and transfer players from other leagues around the world during the primary and secondary transfer windows, which generally align with the international transfer calendar. Clubs must adhere to FIFA’s rules and regulations regarding player transfers, including obtaining International Transfer Certificates (ITCs) and adhering to rules surrounding the protection of minors. Additionally, clubs must be mindful of the available international roster slots when signing international players.

MLS clubs have a variety of methods at their disposal to acquire and develop talent. From the SuperDraft to international signings, clubs can build their rosters in different ways, fostering a competitive and diverse league that showcases a wide range of playing styles and talent.

Regular season structure

Eastern and Western Conferences

Major League Soccer is divided into two conferences: the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Each club plays a predetermined number of regular-season games, facing opponents from both conferences. The regular season typically runs from late February or early March until October. The schedule is designed to balance home and away games for each team, and to account for regional rivalries and travel considerations.

Points system and tiebreakers

In the MLS regular season, clubs earn three points for a win, one point for a draw, and no points for a loss. At the end of the regular season, teams are ranked in their respective conferences based on their total points. In case of a tie on points, the following tiebreakers are applied in this order:

  • Total number of wins
  • Goal differential (total goals scored minus total goals conceded)
  • Goals scored
  • Fewest disciplinary points
  • Road goal differential
  • Road goals scored
  • Home goal differential
  • Home goals scored
  • Coin toss (or drawing of lots if more than two teams are tied)

MLS Cup Playoffs

Qualification and seeding

The MLS Cup Playoffs are a single-elimination tournament held at the conclusion of the regular season, featuring the top teams from each conference. The number of teams that qualify for the playoffs may vary depending on league format changes. Teams are seeded based on their regular-season performance, with higher-seeded teams typically enjoying home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Knockout rounds, Conference Finals, and MLS Cup Final

The playoffs consist of several rounds, starting with the knockout rounds, where lower-seeded teams face off to advance to the conference semifinals. The winners of the knockout rounds face the higher-seeded teams in a single-elimination match, with the winners advancing to the conference finals.

The conference finals are also single-elimination matches, with the winners of each conference final advancing to the MLS Cup Final. The MLS Cup Final is a one-off match played at the home stadium of the higher-seeded team, with the winner being crowned MLS Cup champion.

Other competitions

U.S. Open Cup and Canadian Championship

In addition to the MLS regular season and playoffs, MLS clubs also participate in domestic cup competitions. U.S.-based teams compete in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a knockout tournament that includes clubs from all levels of American soccer. Canadian-based MLS teams participate in the Canadian Championship, a separate knockout competition that features clubs from various Canadian leagues.

CONCACAF Champions League

The top MLS clubs may also qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, a club competition that features the best teams from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. MLS teams can qualify for the Champions League through various means, such as winning the MLS Cup, finishing with the best regular-season record (Supporters’ Shield), or winning their respective domestic cup competitions. The Champions League is played in a two-legged knockout format, with the winner being crowned the best club team in the region and earning a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup.

In conclusion, the MLS season offers a wide range of competitive opportunities for its clubs, with the regular season, playoffs, domestic cup competitions, and international tournaments all providing unique challenges and opportunities for success. This diverse competition structure helps maintain interest among fans and drives clubs to continuously improve and compete at the highest level.

Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and Disciplinary Measures

Major League Soccer implemented the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system in 2017 to enhance the accuracy and consistency of decisions made by the on-field referees. VAR is used to assist the referee in making decisions on specific game-changing situations. The four categories of reviewable decisions are:

  • Goals and potential offside infractions in the buildup to a goal
  • Penalty decisions (awarding or not awarding a penalty kick)
  • Direct red card incidents (excluding second yellow cards)
  • Cases of mistaken identity in awarding a red or yellow card

VAR reviews can only be initiated by the VAR official, who communicates with the on-field referee when a potential clear and obvious error or serious missed incident occurs within these categories. The on-field referee can then decide to review the footage themselves using the sideline monitor (a process called an On-Field Review) or accept the advice of the VAR official.

Impact on match flow and decision-making

The introduction of VAR in MLS has led to improvements in the accuracy of decision-making, helping to correct clear and obvious errors and reducing the impact of controversial decisions on match outcomes. However, the implementation of VAR has also raised concerns about the impact on the flow of the game, as the review process can sometimes lead to lengthy stoppages. To minimize disruptions, MLS has been working to improve the speed and efficiency of the VAR process, while also ensuring that the system is used effectively to enhance the overall quality of officiating.

Disciplinary Committee and sanctions

The MLS Disciplinary Committee is responsible for upholding the league’s rules and maintaining a high standard of sportsmanship and fair play. The committee reviews incidents from MLS matches and has the authority to impose sanctions on players, coaches, and other team personnel who violate the league’s rules or engage in unsporting behavior.

Types of sanctions and appeals process

The Disciplinary Committee can impose a variety of sanctions, including fines, suspensions, or additional disciplinary points, depending on the severity of the infraction. Some common types of infractions that may result in sanctions include:

  • Violent conduct or serious foul play
  • Deliberate and blatant simulation (diving) or feigning injury
  • Offensive, insulting, or abusive language or gestures
  • Public criticism of match officials or the league

Clubs and individuals who are subject to sanctions by the Disciplinary Committee have the right to appeal the decision, with appeals being reviewed by an independent panel. The panel evaluates the evidence and may choose to uphold, reduce, or overturn the sanctions imposed by the Disciplinary Committee.

In conclusion, the implementation of VAR and the Disciplinary Committee’s actions play crucial roles in ensuring that MLS matches are conducted fairly and in the spirit of sportsmanship. By addressing controversial decisions and maintaining high standards of conduct, these measures contribute to the growth and credibility of Major League Soccer as a competitive and respected league.


Throughout this article, we have explored the unique and specific rules that govern Major League Soccer, setting it apart from other soccer leagues around the world. Some of the key rules covered include:

  • MLS-specific roster rules, such as roster size and composition, the Designated Player Rule, and the Homegrown Player Rule
  • Salary cap and allocation money, including General Allocation Money (GAM) and Targeted Allocation Money (TAM)
  • Various player acquisition methods, such as the MLS SuperDraft, college and youth player signings, and player trades and transfers
  • The competition structure, including the regular season, MLS Cup Playoffs, and participation in domestic and international tournaments
  • The implementation of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system and the role of the Disciplinary Committee in maintaining fair play and sportsmanship

As soccer enthusiasts and fans of Major League Soccer, understanding these specific rules is essential for appreciating the nuances of the league and its competitive landscape. Familiarity with these rules allows fans to better comprehend the decisions made by clubs and the league, as well as to engage in more informed discussions about the sport. In addition, understanding the rules helps fans to appreciate the challenges and complexities faced by clubs in managing their rosters, navigating the salary cap, and competing at the highest level.

As fans, it is important to continue engaging with and supporting the league, as this will contribute to further growth and improvement in the quality of play.

By attending matches, watching games on television or online, participating in fan forums, and sharing the excitement of MLS with friends and family, fans can help to create a vibrant soccer culture in North America. This, in turn, will attract more talent, investment, and interest in the sport, ultimately elevating the status of Major League Soccer on the global soccer stage.

In conclusion, understanding the specific rules and nuances of Major League Soccer enriches the experience of following the league and allows fans to engage more deeply with the sport. By supporting the league and its growth, soccer enthusiasts can help to contribute to the continued development and success of MLS, fostering a thriving soccer culture in North America and beyond.