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Teaching Timbers: How MLS Works

As with Portland and Vancouver before it, MLS has inducted Montreal into its league for 2012.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images for MLS)
As with Portland and Vancouver before it, MLS has inducted Montreal into its league for 2012. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images for MLS)
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As promised, today marks the continuation of the “Teaching Timbers” series. If you didn't catch my first entry into the series, I encourage you to check it out. It gives a brief overall history of the team beginning with our origins in 1974 with the North American Soccer League.


Anyway, given that we are “graduating” to MLS for the 2011 season, I'm sure there are plenty of fans out there (old and new alike) who are left mystified by MLS's unusual ways, particularly as it pertains to other leagues from around the world. Make no doubt about it, while the game on the field is a traditional affair, off the field it's anything but.


MLS: A History


MLS is not an old league. Even when compared to relatively newer sports leagues it is considered a younger league only having been founded in 1993 with the first season kicking off in 1996. In fact, the league was only founded because FIFA granted the USA to host the 1994 World Cup, one of the promises made to FIFA by the bid committee to entice the event here.

The league began in 1996 with ten teams:

  • Colorado Rapids

  • Columbus Crew

  • Dallas Burn

  • DC United

  • Kansas City Wiz

  • Los Angeles Galaxy

  • New England Revolution

  • New York Metrostars

  • San Jose Clash

  • Tampa Bay Mutiny

With two additional teams joining the league in 1998: Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion.


DC United had an instant string of successes within the league culminating in three MLS Cup Champions within the first four years of the league's existence.


At the end of the 2001 season, both of the Florida teams contracted due to waning interest in the teams in their respective markets. While today we know that these contractions were actually good for the league, back then it was seen as the death knell with the future prospects of the league being considered uncertain, at best.


Luckily, after a few years of reorganization and hard work, MLS was back on it's feet and growing at a respectable rate. 2005 saw the inclusion of both the Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA franchises, the former of which has its own stadium and was the 2009 MLS Cup champions. In 2006 the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston and established a healthy team in that market. Between 2007 and 2010 four additional teams joined the league in Toronto FC, San Jose Earthquakes (again), Seattle Sounders (bah!) and the Philadelphia Union of which each team has seen resounding success (except for San Jose) in attendance and popularity amongst their respective cities.


In 2011, both Portland and Vancouver will join the league bringing the total number of teams up to the official FIFA recommended amount for first division leagues of 18 clubs. Additionally, if season tickets and general popularity amongst the cities is to be taken into consideration, all signs point to Portland and Vancouver following similar successes as Toronto, Seattle, and Philly. In 2012 the Montreal Impact will join the league. A second New York club is heavily rumored to join by 2013.


An American League Playing the World's Game


If you're at all a fan of international or European/South American league play, you'll instantly notice some stark contrasts between our league and theirs. The reason for this is because, basically, we're American. There are a lot of peculiars with soccer that fly in the face of what the typical American sports fan has been bred with over the past 100 years or so in MLB, NFL, NBA and the NHL.


So with that said, I've broken down our “uniqueness” into three subcategories beginning with:




As I'm sure some of you no doubt are NBA/Blazers fans, this idea shouldn't be too radically difference from what you're used to. In MLS we have two divisions, the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference. While the exact number is changing each year with the addition of more expansion teams, for the 2011 season the MLS HQ has made it so that each team will play each other team twice, home and away.


In other leagues around the world, particularly Europe – where most consider to be the best leagues – this idea is quite odd. The EPL (English Premiere League) for example, has 20 teams all in a single table. No divisions, no segregations.


This method of dividing up the league plays right into the hands of another MLS oddity from the world's point of view: the play-offs.




Again, like with other American sports, the MLS Cup champion is decided after the regular season via a tournament styled play-off system. In 2011, 10 of the 18 teams will be admitted into the play-offs. The top three from each conference and four “wildcards” which will be decided via point placement on their respective tables.


This system basically enables it so that a Western Conference team can play play and win the Eastern Conference championship. In fact, in the 2010 play-offs the Colorado Rapids (a WC team) won the Easter Conference while FC Dallas (another WC team) won the Western Conference, despite Dallas being about 700 miles farther east than Denver.


These unique quirks with our play-off system is a constant complaint from soccer purists around the country, particularly of fans of Europeans leagues.


Speaking of which, in Europe most leagues declare their champions based on overall league performance, i.e. the team with the most points win the league. In the U.S. we offer up a “consolation” prize called the Supporter's Shield for the team which wins the regular season. Many, myself included, consider this team to be the true league champions as it shows which team was consistently the best over the course of the year.




Finally, we have something that is both almost completely ubiquitous across international leagues and almost completely unknown within America/Canada. This is the idea that, with a second division league (in our case the USL/NASL) the bottom 2-3 teams of the first division team will be “relegated” to the second division and the top 2-3 teams of the second division will be “promoted” to the first division.


There are varying arguments for and against when trying to figure out why we don't have a system like this in MLS. Some simply don't believe an American sports fan would understand the premise. Despite all that, it's a pretty safe assumption that MLS won't be adding that feature in the near future, although the league did say that they are constantly evaluating it to meet with FIFA's standards.


Personally, I rather like the idea. While I'd hate to see my team relegated, the aspect of such a system certainly provides an extra thrill within the regular season, particularly if you're team looks to be struggling.


Drafts, drafts, drafts


MLS has drafts, like with other American sports. In total, we have about 3 major drafts, with some others that really aren't a big deal. We'll forgo discussing those in this article for the sake of your own sanity. This system of drafts is used due to MLS's single entity structure, which basically means that the league controls everything and even signs the players, not individual teams like in Europe.


With that said, let's kick this off with the...


Expansion Draft


The Expansion Draft is the draft by which a new “expansion” team, like Portland in 2011, will be able to grab a bulk of players of MLS quality from other teams in the league. The draft regularly occurs just a few days after the MLS Cup championship game. Here's how it works:


At the end of each season, each club that's not an expansion, can “protect” 11 players from being selected. This means that no expansion team, no matter how many are coming in, can select any player that is protected. Additionally, any Generation Adidas (GA) players (explained in the Super Draft) are automatically protected. Any of the team's other players not protected, or GA are able to be selected. From that point, that player belongs to the expansion side, whether for trading, benching, or using.


The Timbers FO selected 10 players from around the league back in November, of which only 5 remain, having traded the rest.


Super Draft


The Super Draft is where teams acquire new signings by the league as well as any GA players that were signed the year prior. This is actually where some of the league's best players come from given that unless signed as a DP, loan, or other special circumstance, each team will acquire their players through this draft. Remember, individual teams don't really sign players, the league does.


Anyway, the Super Draft takes place in early January over four rounds where each team is able to select a player. Round picks can and have been traded in the past.


The Timbers have the second overall pick of each round for the 2011 Super Draft, although I believe we traded our third round pick.


Generation Adidas players, as noted above, are players who have been signed out of college without graduating. This is a deal between MLS and Adidas to help secure and nurture young players while still giving them a salary, which Adidas pays. Players usually graduate from GA in 2-3 years.


The 2011 Super Draft takes place on January 8th.


Re-Entry Draft


Now, given MLS's unique structure as compared to many other leagues around the world, it has created a bit of a problem for players who wish to take their services elsewhere within the league. Prior to 2010, had a player been waived by the team said player would not be able to simply take his services to another team within MLS. In this instance the former team would still own this player's rights making it so that if another MLS team wanted to use him, even if waived by his former team, they would need to trade for him.


In 2010, a new draft was created called the Re-Entry draft. This was a draft created for the express intent to get players who had been waived into other MLS teams without going through unnecessary hurdles.


The draft takes place over two stages the first of which is basically a former contract extension and the latter of which allows the team and players to renegotiate contract terms. The Timbers did not select anybody in the 2010 Re-Entry Draft.


Salary Cap


As with other leagues around the US, MLS employs a salary cap to make sure that the teams maintain their competitive parity, as well as ensuring clubs don't over expand and put the league in jeopardy like what happened with the now defunct NASL.


The primary difference between our salary cap and a salary cap used by the NBA, NHL and NFL is the sheer amount of money teams are allowed to spend in MLS is drastically lower than in other American leagues. In the 2011 season the salary cap will be $2.67 million for the entire team. If you're at all a sports fan – be in American football or European soocer – you'll understand the weight of just how little this amount is. The average salary in MLS is $88,000, a respectable salary for any of us, but drastically lower than other sports.


As I said previously, the reason for this low amount is so that teams, particularly LA and New York, can't outspend everybody else and put their clubs in a financial hole which could tank the entire league. In the last 1970s the New York Cosmos did this and ultimately was one of the reasons why that old league ceased to exist.


As you can imagine, having such tight salary restrictions puts quite the damper on our ability to attract quality players, particularly super stars. Luckily, as the league has grown more viable MLS HQ has enacted a system whereby teams can spend a bit more to secure better “designated” players.


Designated Players, i.e. the Beckham Rule


In 2007, the Los Angeles Galaxy, owned by billionaire corporation AEG, decided it wanted to flex its muscles a bit and attract a huge player to the team/league, that player being David Beckham. Unfortunately, back then bringing on a player of his quality was impossible as his entire yearly salary would dwarf the salary cap. Thus, MLS HQ, wanting to broaden their horizons, created the “Designated Player” oft referred to as the Beckham Rule amongst fans.


The Designated Player (DP) rule basically works like this: when bring on a DP the player can cost as much as the club and player agree to, be it $500,000 or $5,000,000 (Beckham, Henry). While these amounts would ordinarily put a huge dent into a teams yearly allowance, the DP rule allows for only a fraction of this salary to come out of the salary cap, to be exact it's $375,000, which leaves enough money to create a well rounded base of other players.


While in 2007, only a single DP was allowed per team (with the option to buy other clubs' DP spots) today each team is given 2 with the option to buy a 3rd from the league for $250,000. New York, in 2010 had three Dps in Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez.


Today, multiple teams have Designated Players and most others have used them at one point or another to enhance the team with strong players that would normally command higher salaries playing in Europe.


The Timbers, while nothing is confirmed, have come out and said that they are willing to spend the money on a Designated Player so long as they can find a player who fits well with the team. When paying that much a single player, finding the right one is crucial.



And that's basically it. As with all leagues the rules, drafts, etc. can get incredibly complicated so think of this as more of an introduction to the league as opposed to an in-depth guide.


Also keep in mind, some small details could be off. I'm not perfect and my knowledge is certainly limited as well. If you see anything needing to be corrected, simply let me know in the comments!