Tiers – The MLS.
Cup competitions –The MLS Cup and The US Open Cup (a.k.a. The Lamar Hunt Trophy).
Other competitions – None.
The MLS is a league most FM players claim to want to try but very few actually do, largely because they find the league a daunting prospect. Are FM players right to fear football in the USA? Is it as awkward to play as has been suggested? On initial inspection the answer to both of these questions is a resounding ‘yes’ but, a little investigation (and patience) turns both answers to ‘no’ and proves that managing in the MLS can be a fun and rewarding experience.
The MLS consists of two conferences (East and West) each of which contains six teams. Over the course of the regular season each club will play the clubs in its own conference four times and the teams in the other conference twice. This makes for a total of 32 matches each season. At the end of the regular season the team with the best overall record is awarded the Supporters’ Shield and the top-four teams from each conference qualify for the MLS Cup (see section below) in order to determine conference and MLS champions.
Match-day squads allow for the naming of seven substitutes of which three may take to the field.
The MLS awards the standard three points for a win and one for a draw with teams tied on points separated by head to head results, goal difference and goals scored.
Squad status and contracts, player rights, and the draft/trading/transfer system are the areas most likely to cause confusion when playing in the MLS. With this in mind it’s probably helpful to look at each area separately.
Squad status, contracts and composition rules
Each team can register up to 28 players at any one time. Of this figure a maximum of 18 may be classed as ‘Senior’ contract players (any player aged 25 or over must be classed as a ‘Senior’ though younger players may be given ‘Senior’ contracts and status too) while at least ten players have to be on ‘Developmental’ contracts. ‘Developmental’ contracts can be split into two distinct categories, ‘Generation Adidas’ (shows as ‘USY’ in game) and ‘MLS Developmental’ (shows as ‘DEV’ in game). Players on these contracts are generally regarded as future stars (‘USY’) or players with decent potential (‘DEV’). It’s possible, though perhaps not sensible, to have a 28 man squad of players entirely made up of ‘Developmental’ contracts, though it’s not possible to have a squad consisting purely of ‘Senior’ players.
There are no work permit rules in place to hinder the signing of overseas players though it’s worth remembering that your squad may only contain seven players who do not list American as either a first or second nationality. These players are also categorised by age and the squad may not contain more than four overseas players who are over 25 years of age (‘Senior Internationals’ or ‘SI’). ‘Youth Internationals’ (or ‘YI’) are overseas players under this age limit and you may have up to seven of these (as long as the overall limit of seven foreigners is not exceeded).
The MLS also operates a salary cap system in order to maintain a level playing field between clubs and to ensure the financial stability of the league as a whole. The cap works in two ways, firstly to stop clubs exceeding the set total across the entire squad and secondly to stop one individual player earning more than $350k per year (remember FM07 is pre-‘Beckham Rule’ MLS). The cap regarding the squad rises slowly as the game progresses but the player cap remains stable. It’s worth noting that players on ‘Developmental’ contracts do not count towards the total salary, only ‘Senior’ contracts are part of the cap system (and a minimum wage system also guarantees that ‘Senior’ players cannot be paid less than their ‘Developmental’ counterparts). Foreign players’ contracts are always included in the salary calculation regardless of age or status.
In order to complicate matters, the majority of the squad composition rules are relaxed (or even removed) to allow squad size to expand to 35 players during the close season. This is to allow clubs to trade players, sign drafts/waivers and do general squad maintenance. When the limits are put back into place for the season to start excess players may be waived (more on this later), loaned out or sent to affiliate clubs where they will not affect the squad composition rules. Players loaned out or sent to affiliates are also removed from the salary calculation.
Another confusing area of the MLS is the issue of player rights (effectively who owns the right to play the player in MLS matches). At it’s most basic level it is true to say that any player signed or drafted by an MLS club will have their rights owned by that club and that this will remain the case unless one of the following events occur:
– the player is traded to another MLS club (whereupon the rights move with the player);
– the player is transferred overseas (though in this instance the MLS club retains the rights for 12 months, guaranteeing them first option to bring the player back to the MLS. During this period any other MLS club must purchase the rights to the player from his old club before he can make a return to the MLS);
– the player is not signed by the club after being drafted (though the rights WILL belong to the club until the end of the season following the draft – a period of almost two years);
– the player is waived (if the player is picked up by another club the rights move with him; if not, then the player’s rights will be held by the he was waived from for a period of 12 months);
– the player does not sign a new contract and leaves the club (though the club will retain the rights for 12 months from the date the player leaves).
Waivers, player trading, transfers and the draft system
Waivers maybe used at any point of the season (they operate outside the transfer windows) and are essentially a combination of a free transfer and a way to offer a player to other clubs. Any players unlucky enough to be waived will have their contract cancelled with immediate effect and without any compensation payment – handy if a club is short of cash and needs to get rid of players who are no longer needed. All players who are waived are posted on a list for two days, during which time other MLS clubs may submit an offer (remember, they are offering for the player rights, not the player). The offer from the club with the lowest ranking will automatically be successful. If no-one wishes to sign the player then the following situation exists:
– the player’s rights are still owned by the club who waived him for a full 12 months. If at any point during this 12 month period another MLS club wishes to sign him they must negotiate for the rights. After the 12 months has elapsed the player is a free agent and may freely sign for another MLS club;
– the club that cut him from their roster may resign him for free (as long as he hasn’t moved to another club) at any point during the first 12 months after cutting;
– the player is free to be approached by any club outside of the MLS (even other US teams) and may sign for them on a Bosman style free transfer.
NB – upon claiming a player from the waiver list clubs are automatically moved to the bottom of the chain, thus allowing the other clubs to have earlier options on the next waived player.
Players in the MLS are not traded or transferred between clubs in the way that they are in most other nations as no money changes hands. Instead transfers tend to involve player trades (i.e. exchange deals) and the swapping of draft picks (draft picks are highly sought after as each club has a limited number and the ability to make a number of early choices obviously guarantees a better standard of ‘Developmental’ player being signed). So, for example, a striker may make the move from New York Red Bull to LA Galaxy in return for a right-back and a second round draft pick. This system only applies to deals between MLS clubs. Deals between MLS clubs and other US or overseas teams are conducted in the more traditional manner of arranging a fee (and possible player exchanges) before moving onto contract negotiations. These transfers are perfectly legal and will proceed normally as long as none of the squad composition rules are broken.
The MLS interacts with the transfer window system in a unique manner too, as domestic trades and waivers are exempt from the windows. The only restriction on signing domestic players is that players may not move between clubs after the end of the regular season (i.e. once the play-offs are drawn). International transfers are allowed between November and February, and throughout August and September.
The draft system is split into two parts, each allowing for four rounds of picks (depending on whether or not picks have been traded). The teams take their picks in reverse order of their overall record from the previous season. Therefore, the team with the worst record picks first and the Supporters’ Shield winning club picks last. The Super Draft takes place first (sometime in mid-January) with 60-70 players aged between 16 and 22 years old available to be signed. The Super Draft itself follows a small tournament between four teams made up of these players where the players are able to show their talent to scouts. Any players not picked during the Super Draft will be available for selection during the Supplemental Draft which takes place approximately three weeks later.
Another draft, the Waiver Draft, takes place another three to four weeks later. The players available are all those who have been waived over the last few months and are in search of a club. Bear in mind that the majority of these players have been waived because they simply aren’t good enough (though from time to time you’ll find a player in there who has been released because he couldn’t agree a new contract or wanted to leave a club. It’s definitely worth taking the time to check.)
There is a ‘Pass’ option available in each of the drafts, select this option with care as it doesn’t simply skip your next pick, it effectively signals your intent to end your picking options on that particular draft.
The MLS Cup commences at the end of the regular season and begins by generating a set of semi-finals among the top-four teams in each conference (clubs can only be drawn against a team from the same conference). The semi-finals take place over two-legs and the winners then progress to a final showdown in order to determine the overall winner of that conference. The two conference champions then play each other in a one-off match for the title of MLS champions.
The Lamar Hunt Trophy
The Lamar Hunt Trophy is the US equivalent of the FA Cup and the format is similar in almost every aspect. Clubs from across the USA take part in the early rounds before the MLS sides join the competition. Ties are one-off matches that must produce a result whether it is via extra-time or penalties. Unlike the MLS only five substitutes may be named in the match squad.