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Sounders FC and MLS Primer

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Seattle Sounders FC and our great Puget Sound are joining Major League Soccer. There are some unique rules and regulations that both make MLS uniquiely American, and yet in ways still keeps to its European roots. I intend this peice to be an introduction to the league, its unique rules, its teams and in some ways the basics of the sport. While most of my readers are already fans of the World's Game, there are some who are reading my writing because of my past writings on baseball, or just because they are friends and family. This post and others in the Primer series will provide the basic league and team data that is often overlooked.

Currently Major League Soccer (MLS) is made up of 15 teams in two Conferences for the 2009 season. In 2010 the yet to be named Philadelphia team will be added to the Eastern Conference. For 2011 two other teams will be added. Seattle Sounders FC is in the Western Conference. Their other Western Conference opponents are the LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, CD Chivas USA and the San Jose Earthquakes. The Eastern Conference holds the reigning holders of the Double the Columbus Crew, the Western Conference Champion New York Red Bulls, Kansas City Wizards, Chicago Fire, Toronto FC, New England Revolution and DC United.

Let's pause right there. This is one of the points of "Americanization" that exists in MLS -

the MLS Cup Playoffs. Unlike Europe where the league winner is determined by a season long home/away single table in MLS there are two Champions. The Supporters Shield is awarded to the team with the best regular season record, and the MLS Cup is awarded to the team that wins the MLS Cup Playoffs. Those are the top awards in League play. Red Bulls entered the playoffs as the final Wild Card and so played in the Western Conference playoffs. That means that they as an Eastern Conference team have the uniquely absurd position as having been the best in the West last year.

So in 2009 Sounders FC will start their quest for the playoffs and their first banner playing a New York club that was the best in the West. There was a slight change to the playoffs that MLS tends to put in place when it has an odd number of teams. The top two from each Conference will qualify and then the next best four teams will be seeded with preferences going to Conference play to reduce travel for fans and players. But if all four Wild Card teams are from the Eastern Conference than the Western playoffs will involve heavy travel, or vice versa. In most seasons a team with 40 points on the table will make the playoffs. Three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss.

To recap, the regular season is 30 games long, over a 32 week stretch in order to pause for some National Team play, as well as the MLS All-Star game. The All Star game is another "Americanization" of the sport and features the Best 11 as voted by the fans in a 3-5-2 formation with back-up players selected by coaches and players. The All-Star game normally features the best of MLS against a top international club, and in July will be held in the brand new Soccer Specific Stadium in Sandy, Utah that hosts Real Salt Lake.

From a Fans Flickr account

From a Fan's Flickr account

The best of MLS have a history of success in their All-Star games vs. international competition having gone 5-0-0 in their matches in the current format against West Ham United, Celtic, Chelsea, Fulham and Guadalajara. The opponent for the 2009 match is yet to be determined.

One thing that soccer does that the US sports do not do is some thing that I have referred to as "The Appeal of Layered Competition." This is due to the fact that not only is their league play, there is also non-league play. In non-league play sometimes the opponents are determined through qualification and other times due to historical location or connection to the rivals.

First we look at the tournaments for which an MLS team can qualify by succeeding in the regular season or playoffs. The biggest of these is the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). This tournament features the best teams from throughout the continental region (North, Central and Caribean America). Major League Soccer qualifies between 3 and 5 teams for this tourney. The top regular season team (Supporter's Sheild winner) and the top playoff team (MLS Cup winner) qualify for the Group Stage. Qualifying stage entries are the winner of the US Open Cup, the Canadian Championship and the loser of the MLS Cup Final. Only one of those teams must be an MLS team, but it should be likely that all three are in 2009. We will cover those other tournaments in just a moment. The winner of the CCL then gets to compete in the Club World Cup and face the best teams for the world's other continental regions and prove that they are truly the best club on the planet. No silly BCS style arguments here, it is proven on the field. In earlier versions of this tournament DC United and LA Galaxy have both won this tournament. Only one MLS club is participating in the Knockout Rounds (Round of 8) of the current tournament, the Houston Dynamo.

The best four regular season performances by MLS teams to NOT qualify for the CCL will participate in SuperLiga an invitiational competition between MLS and the Mexican Federation (FMF). It is only played in US venues at this time. The 2009 participants from MLS are the Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, CD Chivas USA and the Kansas City Wizards. While this tourney has been pitched as having a million dollar prize, that was proven to be not quite true last season. With the new format of qualification this should mean that the tournament is seen as the secondary qualification tourney in North America, and it will not tax the players too much.

Based on location teams also qualify for their national tournament. In the USA this is called the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Qualification and format has not been announced yet at this time, but historically the top 3 teams from each Conference join during the Third Round (16 total teams) with the remaining US MLS teams playing in a knock-out format to qualify for the final two slots. This tourney is like the FA Cup in England in that amatuer clubs participate as well as the lower levels of soccer in the USA under the USL umbrella. The past two years saw the USL-1 Seattle Sounders making it to the SemiFinals, beating CD Chivas USA and Kansas City Wizards in '08 and CD Chivas USA and Colorado Rapids in '07. By nature the US Open Cup is a tourney in ways like the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament as it is typical for a "minor" team to make a run into the Quarterfinals. Only one non-MLS team has won the tournament in the current era, the Rochester Rhinos of USL-1 when they beat four MLS teams on the way. Historically the Chicago Fire are the best MLS team in the tournament having carried the Cup four times.

In Canada their tournament is not a knockout, but features the top three pro teams at this time the MLS Toronto FC and the USL-1 clubs Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact. Each team plays the other H/A with 3 points for a win and 1 for a tie. This format was new in 2008 with Montreal winning. The Impact have advanced to the Quarterfinals of the CCL after being the best in Canada.

MLS also hosts a pre-season tournament called the Pan-Pacific Championship. If features top teams from around the Pacifc Rim and the LA Galaxy. This mini-tournament is done as a tiny knockout, winners on day one play eachother on day two, with the losers also playing on day two. This leads to a Friday/Sunday format with a Champion crowned. In 2009 the Home Depot Center hosts.

With all of these different tournaments and league play it becomes apparent that the depth of a roster is important for a team to be successful in most of them, though some teams might structure their rosters with more top-end talent in order to make a run at just one of the many titles.

Major League Soccer current allows teams to hold 24 men on the roster, with 4 to 6 of those being "Developmental Players" who are 25 years old or younger. These developmental players are typically not well paid, but also include Generation Adidas players. Generation Adidas is a program funded by the sportwear company that is used to get top high school and collegiate talent to join the league. The player's in this program do not count against the salary cap and are promised an education at a US university or college when their career ends, no matter how successful their career. Seattle Sounders FC has one GA player - Steve Zakuani.

The Senior Roster makes decent money, but nowhere near US athletes' typical salary, except for the Designated Player. This is due to the MLS Salary Cap, yet to be announced, but likely between 2.3 and 2.5 Million dollars US. This money is only for the Senior roster of 18-20 players. This cap is fairly "hard" as the league is run as a single entity so avoiding the cap can ONLY be done through two methods - the Designated Player and through Allocation funds.

The Designated Player is the rule also known as the Beckham Rule, as the first player to join MLS under its auspices was David Beckham. The league only covers 400 thousand dollars of the player's contract with what ever remaining funds to be covered by the team or its individual sponsors. Seattle's DP is Freddie Ljungerg of Arsenal and Swedish National team fame (he also had a year with West Ham). There are currently six DPs in the league - Juan Pablo Angel (NYRB), David Beckham (LAG), Cuauhtémoc Blanco (Chicago), Luciano Emilio (DCU), Freddie Ljungberg (SSFC) and Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus). A team can acquire an extra slot via trade and current both DC United and NY Red Bulls have an second for 2009.

Allocation Funds are the other method of avoiding the salary cap. These funds are awarded in order to help acheive parity (given for missing the playoffs) as well as given when a team transfers a player to another league around the world (but only a share, not the entirity of the fun as the league controls player salaries). It is best to see these funds as a way to make a signing bonus payment as they do not count against the cap, and are a one time payment. They are also the only way for a team to pay a transfer fee to a non-MLS club. Allocation funds were likely used to acquire Fredy Montero and as a signing bonus for Kasey Keller. Expansion clubs are given extra funds that must be used in their first two years.

Related to Allocation funds, is the Allocation order or ranking. This ranking of the teams is adjusted through trades and playoff position, and is the method used to acquire highly sought after US National Team players when they choose to join MLS. Seattle Sounders used this method to acquire Keller, and the Chicago Fired used it when Brian McBride returned to the States from Fulham.

While General Managers play with DPs, Allocations, Senior slots and Developmental Players they have one other rule to be aware of concerning roster constrution - International slots. In 2009 each team will have 8 international slots, though they can be dealt and a team in theory could have 24 slots. A player is an international if they are not a citizen nor permanent resident (Green Card holder in USA) of the nation where their team plays. This MLS rule is different than the FIFA nationality rules, and different than similar rules in other top flight leagues.

The above primer covers the general league and non-league competitions, as well as the roster rules. In upcoming primers will cover the other teams in the league, their players and their management structures.

Embedded here is an audio version of this primer with Prospect Insider's Jason Churchill