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Format, CONCACAF CL qualification and start date of the 2022 MLS season

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Major League Soccer (MLS) returns on Saturday 26th February for the 2022 season. MLS seasons normally start in March, but due to the World Cup being held during November of this year, it is starting at the end of this month.

The opening fixture this year is Philadelphia Union against Minnesota United, which will kick off at 18:00 GMT on the 26th. Anyone hoping to catch the current MLS Cup champions, New York City FC, will be able to watch them in action the following day on the 27th against L.A Galaxy at 22:00 GMT.

For anybody that is new to the game, you might notice that MLS sets itself up differently from other league formats that you have traditionally seen, especially in the UK and Europe.

It’s not a case of America wanting to do things differently to the rest of us, it is just that there is no where near the depth of professional teams in its structure like here in the UK for instance. The popularity of the sport is rapidly growing on the other side of the Atlantic but it is still not on the same sort of levels as the NFL, NBA or MLB.

Proof of its rapid growth is being seen with teams joining the league every year. In 2020, David Beckham’s co-ownership helped bring Inter Miami into the league along with other newcomers Nashville. The 2021 season saw Austin FC join and this season Charlotte FC will make their debut. The 2023 campaign and beyond could see cities like St Louis, Sacramento, Detroit and Las Vegas into the mix.


MLS format

So, the MLS works like this:

  • 28 teams compete
  • The league is split into two conferences, Eastern and Western
  • Each conference has 14 teams in each for the 2022 season
  • There is no relegation from the conferences
  • The 14 teams in each conference compete to only win that conference
  • Every team plays their conference rivals home and away and a further eight teams from the opposing conference, making 34 games in total
  • The team finishing first in each conference is the conference champion, with the winner with the better stats becoming the Supporters’ Shield winner
  • The top eight places from each conference go through to the MLS Cup in the postseason
  • The current Eastern Conference champions are the New England Revolution
  • The current Western Conference champions are the Colorado Rapids
  • New England had the better stats at the end of the season, so they became the Supporters’ Shield winners


Like in all football, the winners get rewarded with a little more than just a trophy.

Like their counterparts from around the world, winning leagues and cups means places in other competitions.

As stated above, the top eight places in each conference go through to the MLS Cup. This, like with most other American sports, is a postseason playoff tournament with only one winner.

This sets up as follows:

  • Each of the top eight teams in either conference have one side of the tournament bracket each, Eastern and Western
  • They are seeded from one to eight. The start of the bracket sees 1st vs 8th, 2nd vs 7th, 3rd vs 6th and 4th vs 5th
  • This plays through until there is one team left from each conference, where they will then play the MLS Cup Final
  • Last season’s winner was New York City FC

The CONCACAF Champions League is a competition like the other Champions League tournaments held by other footballing bodies around the world.

CONCACAF is the football governing body for the Americas in the northern hemisphere. The USA and Canada are allocated five spaces to enter this competition. Four being for the MLS and one to the professional teams in Canada. The way to gain entry is as follows:

  • Winning the Supporters’ Shield
  • Winning the Eastern or Western Conference
  • The team from either conference with the next best record at the end of the season
  • MLS Cup winner
  • Canadian Championship Winner (Voyageurs Cup)

If one team has qualified through different routes, by winning multiple trophies, the team with the next best regular season record (having not already qualified) will receive the spot.

All winners in MLS receive a CONCACAF Champions League place, with one exception. That exception is of course, if you are a team from Canada.

Even though one of the three Canadian MLS teams might have won a conference or a cup, this does not mean they have qualified for the Champions League. They will still receive the honor of being champions and of course have their name in the record books, but they will have to qualify a different way.

This way is via the Voyageurs Cup. The Voyageurs Cup is a knockout tournament set up in much the same way as a playoff bracket for the MLS Cup. This time it is only eight teams, which are Canada’s top eight professional teams. The tournament is played out with the winner gaining a place in next season’s Champions League.

So, there we have it, a basic guide to the structure of the MLS. Hope it has helped any new fans getting to grips with the league, and enjoy the upcoming season.

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