A Guide to MLS

The United States of America. A country that is so vast it spans five different time zones. The country famous for Stars and Stripes on its flag, Times Square, and Hollywood, is also home to Major League Soccer (MLS). 

MLS started on the back of the success of USA ‘94, with the inaugural season taking place in 1996 with 10 teams. Like most American sports, it was divided into regional conferences, East and West, and since that first season the league has continued to grow. Toronto FC became the first Canadian franchise to join the league in 2007 and the 2023 season will be contested by 29 teams following the arrival of St Louis City SC.

The league is unique with a lot of rules that may be unfamiliar to those normally playing in the European leagues. Here’s a guide to help familiarise yourself with them and help you guide your team to MLS Cup glory. 

A Guide to MLS

LEAGUE FORMAT

The arrival of St Louis City SC takes MLS to 29 teams for 2023, with 14 in the Eastern Conference and 15 in the Western Conference. In total, you will play 34 games in the regular season. 

The league begins in late February, with the MLS Cup Final eventually played in late November. The top seven teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs, which are a series of one-off knockout games.

Teams also compete for the Supporters’ Shield, a trophy bestowed to the team with the best regular season record in a single-table format.

There are several knockout competitions your team may feature in throughout your career across the pond.

SQUAD BUILDING

As with all saves, building your squad is just as important as nailing your tactics.

The central thing to bear in mind when putting your squad together is that you have to comply with the league’s salary cap. The total sum of the salary cap, which must cover the costs of all registered players, is $5,210,000 for the 2023 season. If you are organised and able to master the varying contract options available to you (yes, there’s more than one), keeping within the cap shouldn’t be too hard.

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There’s two main parts of the roster – ‘On Budget’ applies to any contracts that hit the cap and ‘Off Budget’, those that don’t. Let’s elaborate on that a little…

Senior contracts are the standard professional contracts available in the US, while Designated Player (DP) contracts can only be awarded to the highest-paid players in your squad. High potential younger players can be signed to either Young Designated Player (YDP) or U22 Initiative Contracts (the difference being wages for U22 have to be under $612,000 per year, both allow any transfer fee). DP/YDP/U22 contracts all have fixed cap-hits regardless of wages and acquisition costs. Check the rules page in-game for more details. Full-Time and Senior Minimum contracts round out the Senior/20 play roster contract types.

Off-budget options include Generation Adidas (GA) contracts are offered by the league to the best prospects that come through the SuperDraft, but these are entry-level and contracts and cannot be renewed. MLS Reserve (RES) contracts are for players new to the league and these can only be given to those under the age of 25. To simplify things a little bit in Football Manager, we have added another type of contract – Senior Minimum Salary (SMS). SMS are the only contract type that can be on either On/Off budget and is determined based on the available slots. Players on Generation Adidas and Reserve contracts are considered cap free.  The final type of cap-free players are Homegrown players (out of the academy). HG players can be on FT, SMS or RES deals and will always be off-budget during their initial contract.

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You need to finalise your roster in early March just before the first game of the season. You cannot have more than 30 players and, of those, no more than 20 can be ‘senior’ players (this includes Designated Players). These 20 will comprise your salary cap, with the other 10 players (maximum of six Reserves plus Generation Adidas and some on Senior Minimum Salary) considered ‘off-budget’. Some Senior Homegrown players can be partially or entirely off the salary cap thanks to a homegrown budget. 

Each MLS team gets eight International slots. Canadian teams get an additional three INTL slots. Additionally, all three Canadian clubs must have a minimum of three Canadians in their squad. Getting this balance right is essential to staying within the rules – do you want a smaller squad with a few more expensive names or a bigger squad with cheaper players that allows you to rotate and experiment more?

TRADES AND TRANSFERS

It’s now time to think about signing players for your squad. Again, you have options – you can sign players from outside the league, free agents and you can trade with other teams.

When it comes to signing international players from outside MLS, you start with eight permanent slots for accommodating them. However, you can trade these slots with other teams – for example, if you want to bring in an additional international, you can trade something with another team to up your number of slots to nine and reduce theirs to seven. These slots also apply to any foreigner currently playing in the league that is not a ‘green card carrier’ (including Canadians if you are a US side).

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Trading in MLS is fun. If the players you are swapping are of a similar level, then you may be able to trade them without any additional extras. However, it may be the case that one side in the equation needs to offer a little more to secure what they want and at that point you can include things such as player rights, future draft picks and allocation money. The keys to successful trading in MLS are long-term planning and putting a little bit of thought into what you are doing and what you want.

While not the most valuable thing you will have at your disposal in an MLS save, player rights can be a useful card to keep up your sleeve. They are estimated in-game at 10% of the player’s value. A club has the right to hold onto these rights in some instances (unsigned draft pick, homegrown player, player who chooses to leave on a free) meaning that you can then trade them later on with any club for either the player rights of someone else, a player, allocation money or a future draft pick. Adding these to a draft proposal could make all the difference and they could set up further trades down the line.

Another thing worth considering when signing players are your reserves of General Allocation Money and Targeted Allocation Money, both of which sit outside your transfer budget. The former can be used to reduce the impact of senior players on the salary cap, while the latter can be used to bring down the impact of a designated player on the cap to the point that they will be demoted to a senior contract instead, thereby freeing up a designated slot. This money is given to the clubs by the league at the beginning of each season and both categories are tradable. GAM and TAM can be used at the contract offer time to help negotiate, giving more ways to fit a contract into the cap while meeting player demands.

With the Roster Freeze not coming until September, you have time to play around with your squad. One way to make changes comes when your players become injured. If you have a player who is expected to be out for at least six regular season games, you can put them on the Disabled List. If you have any players that are going to be out of action for the rest of the season, they can be added to the Season Injury List. The advantage of doing either of these things is freeing up a slot on the roster to sign a replacement for the injured player, although putting them on the injury list does not free up any cap space, so that’s something you will need to bear in mind.

DRAFTS

Drafts are a key element of all major American sports. MLS has six different drafts across the season for you to get to grips with, but don’t worry, you don’t have to participate in all of them.

The Expansion Draft is exclusively for the expansion teams. For 2023, St Louis City SC will be able to pick up five players each from existing MLS teams. Non-expansion teams can protect up to 12 members of their squad from being drafted. Only one player from your team can be taken during the draft.

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The MLS SuperDraft, which takes place in January, allows you to recruit up to four players (more/less if you make trades of picks) from amateur teams (representing players at college in the US). Expansion teams always get the first picks, with the order then determined by your league position from the previous season. In 2023, for example, the first pick will go to St Louis City SC,  followed by the sides who failed to make the play-offs in 2022. The teams that made the play-offs are then included in the order in which they were eliminated, with the winners of the league having the final pick. If your season is going well, it can be worthwhile trying to trade your first-round pick for something else (more on this later).

5V2

Existing teams get to pick up players previously discarded by other teams in the two Waiver Drafts. There is one that takes place just before the start of the season in March, which can often serve as a means to pick up a couple of last-minute additions. There is also another one after the conclusion of a season, giving you the opportunity to snap up youngsters out of contract with other teams. These players can be reclamation projects, or sometimes just someone who cannot fit the cap and they run out of time to find a trade or new contract.

MLS does not have unrestricted free agency and depending on the amount of time a player has been in the league they will either be a free agent, or go in the waiver or Re-Entry draft. The Re-Entry draft Stage 1 selections will get an automatic contract extension upon joining your team so be careful of the wages and contract type you are selecting.  In the Re-Entry Draft Stage 2 you are only acquiring the MLS rights and will need to negotiate a new contract to sign the selection, else they will not join your club.

TOP TIPS TO MASTER MLS
  • Take advantage of the drafts – these can be a great way to bolster you squad without spending a fortune. Scouting can be a challenge, but make sure you assign your scouts to the showcase and after the draft player pool and GA selections are announced in December.
  • Keep an eye on the salary cap – if you can’t stick within your budget, you won’t be able to get very far. Use GAM to buy down contracts for players on the roster and GAM/TAM when signing new players.
  • Think strategically – maximise the varying contract types available to you to craft a squad of winners. Giving everyone a RES deal wont work because you can only have a max of six, for example.
  • Trade your way to success - having the ability to trade players, player rights, allocation money and draft picks is a fantastic resource and doing it properly could make all the difference. Don’t lose players for nothing if you can’t fit them in your cap.
  • Loan players out to help with development and cap/roster management.
WHO TO MANAGE?

If you do decide to dip into managing in the USA, a few challenges we would recommend include:

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls are one of the only two founder teams yet to lift the MLS Cup, despite holding the longest active streak of post-season berths with 13. They’ve managed to win three Supporters’ Shields; can you finally add the MLS Cup to that list?

Notable players currently playing for the Red Bulls include Lewis Morgan, Carlos Coronel and Luquinhas.

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St. Louis City SC

A new franchise to the league for FM23 so you can start from scratch and really implement your tactics and transfer strategy. 
The team is already boasting some impressive international talent including former Borussia Dortmund player Roman Bürki along with Joakim Nilsson and Selmir Pidro.

L.A. Galaxy

L.A. Galaxy were the Galacticos of MLS dominating the league in the early years. Their trophy cabinet is highly impressive with five MLS Cups (a league record) and four Supporters’ Shields. They had some notable superstars don the jersey across the years, currently including Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Douglas Costa, and Riqui Puig. Recent years have been not so good for the California-based team. The Galaxy have only qualified for the playoffs twice in the last five years. 

Nashville SC

Based in the music city, Nashville SC began play in the MLS during the 2020 season and have gone from strength to strength since. Recently opening their new soccer specific stadium, the future is bright. Boasting an already strong roster including captain Dax McCarty, Hany Mukhtar and Walker Zimmerman. All you need is a couple new additions, and that MLS Cup could be yours. 

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