FIFA™ | United States of America, Canada & Mexico

Major League Soccer Guide To 2020 (6 years prior to the 2026 World Cup)

The MLS is the national soccer competition of one of the hosts of the World Cup 2026 in North America: the USA. Like so many other competitions around the world, Major League Soccer (better known as the MLS) has suffered an almighty amount of disruption in 2020. Although this latest season had a rather bumpy start to proceedings, a sense of normality has finally been restored. Let’s have a look at the characteristics of the MLS in 2020 – six years prior to the FIFA World Cup Soccer year 2026.

The kind of restored sense of normality is because we are now approaching the play-offs phase of the competition. From here, two teams will eventually duke it out in the MLS Cup, as this year’s dominant force in America will subsequently be crowned.

>>> Picture above: November 10, 2019, Seattle: Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei (24) blocks a shot during the Major League Soccer Cup Final between the Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders.<<<

However, before we get to that point, we must first look back at how those in charge of the MLS navigated through such choppy waters at the start of the year, as they had to deal with the issues that came from the outbreak of COVID-19.

Toronto, Canada: view of the BMO field during the 2020 Major League Soccer season (MLS) match between Toronto FC and New York City FC. The Toronto BMO Field will als be home of the 2026 World Cup. Pro Shots / Zuma Press


At the 2026 World Cup the MLS will, by then, have finished its 31st season. At the start of February 2020 though, the MLS was gearing up to celebrate its 25th season. When you consider where the competition had come from back in 1996, to even reach such a landmark was reason for a year-long party.

Unfortunately, after just two weeks of the regular season, those best laid plans were scuppered. With a global pandemic causing damage to sporting competition all over the world, the MLS was not immune to its effects either.

Thankfully, the show did go on eventually. Even though there was a near four-month hiatus and the regular league schedule had been severely impacted, competitive action moved to a single venue tournament instead.

Better known as the ‘MLS is Back Tournament’, its Orlando based format would feature a group stage which was counted toward the 2020 MLS regular season standings. And this was subsequently followed by knockout rounds. At the culmination of the knockout phase, the Portland Timbers would eventually come out on top. After celebrating such a success, they would also be given the additional bonus of a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.

Back to some form of normal

Dec 6, 2020; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Columbus Crew SC celebrate the eastern conference championship after the game against the New England Revolution at MAPFRE Stadium. Pro Shots / SIPA USA

Between August and early November 2020, matters returned to the regular Major League Soccer season phase. Although a number of fixtures were still left unfulfilled, a measure of average Points Per Game (PPG) rather than points totals would go on to decide which teams would eventually reach the play-offs.

To get to this stage, the 26 teams are split into two conferences (Eastern and Western), with the former operating with 14 in its mini-league and the latter providing a competitive home for the remaining 12.

While to give a better insight into who plies their trade where, here is a list of the split between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference:

Eastern Conference

  • Philadelphia Union
  • Toronto FC
  • Columbus Crew SC
  • Orlando City SC
  • New York City FC
  • New York Red Bulls
  • Nashville SC
  • New England Revolution
  • Montreal Impact
  • Inter Miami CF
  • Chicago Fire FC
  • Atlanta United FC
  • D.C. United
  • FC Cincinnati

Western Conference

  • Sporting Kansas City
  • Seattle Sounders FC
  • Portland Timbers
  • Minnesota United FC
  • Colorado Rapids
  • FC Dallas
  • Los Angeles FC
  • San Jose Earthquakes
  • Vancouver Whitecaps FC
  • LA Galaxy
  • Real Salt Lake
  • Houston Dynamo

Schedule: the race for the play-offs

Here the top five teams from each regional conference earn themselves a guaranteed berth in the play-offs, while there are also an additional three entries made available to those who finish between 6th and 8th in the final Western league table.

While although 6th also pays out a play-off berth in the Eastern, things then become slightly different here. With those who finish 7th to 10th in the Eastern league table, then squaring off in a pair of play-off prelim rounds, it adds just one more level before earning a spot in the knockout phase.

Once these two prelim encounters are contested, we will finally know which 16 teams have made it to the business end of proceedings. From here until to the MLS Cup final on December 12th, it is sudden-death knockout football all the way.

Different kind of prizes

Of course, it is not just domestic dominance that each of these 26 teams are craving for. There is also the pursuit of regional supremacy. And if any of the MLS outfits are successful in the CONCACAF Champions League, they will eventually be granted a place in the FIFA Club World Cup.

Before that stage though, the MLS will have to designate a small number of entrants to the Champions League and with the Portland Timbers already booking their place in the 2021 edition of the competition, they will also be joined by the Philadelphia Union.

February 25, 2020, MLS: new owner David Beckham speaks with the media as he visits the Inter Miami CF team at Inter Miami Stadium and Training Complex in Fort Lauderdale. Pro Shots / Zuma Press

The Union have managed to book their own berth to North, Central and Caribbean America’s premier club competition in 2021, after finishing as the highest scoring team when both the Eastern and Western Conference end of season tables are combined.

While these two teams, make up just 50 percent of the MLS representatives for next year, as they will be joined by whomever wins this year’s MLS Cup (or the losing finalist, if either of these two win) and a fourth entrant who will be selected by a yet to be decided criteria.

It’s all about the money

After many failed attempts to launch the professional game in this country – World Cup Soccer host US – those behind the brainchild of the MLS decided to things a little differently. In doing so, they would not make the previous mistakes of the past.

What this ultimately meant was a single-entity structure. One where the teams and player contracts are owned by the league themselves. And although this approach has come in for criticism at times, it has also been the benchmark for the competition’s success in the past 25 years.

By adopting this approach, it has meant that no single owner can invest millions of dollars into his or her franchise and by doing so, distort the competitive landscape that has been cultivated by those in charge of the MLS.

On the face of it, this measure has certainly been of benefit to the MLS. When you consider the amount of money that is required to even join the league as an expansion team, it’s not an approach that will be changing anytime soon.

Is it getting drafty in here

United States forward Gyasi Zardes (9) during the semi-final play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer tournament at Nissan Stadium. Will Zardes – also Columbus Crew player at the MLS – be starring for the United States at the 2026 World Cup? Pro Shots / Action Images

Once we know who the 2020 MLS Cup winners are, focus will soon move onto 2021. And even though there will be a decent amount of time to rest and recuperate in the off-season, those in charge of player recruitment will be afforded little time to sleep…

Especially as another round of the MLS SuperDraft will soon be upon us. This allows each of the current 26 teams in operation and the newly formed Austin FC (who join the party in 2021) to select the brightest collegiate stars.

In terms of how teams are afforded their picks, it is like the long-standing NFL Draft and next year’s process will be as follows:

  • Any expansion teams receive the first picks.
  • Non-playoff clubs receive the next picks in reverse order of prior season finish.
  • Teams that made the MLS Cup Playoffs are then ordered by which round of the playoffs they are eliminated.
  • The winners of the MLS Cup are given the last selection, and the losers the penultimate selection.

In structuring the SuperDraft in this way, it allows the competitive balance to be reset every year and because of this, fans of the MLS no matter where they are in the world, are treated to some of the most entertaining football on show today. An outstanding part of the run-up to the 2026 FIFA World Cup, in Canada, Mexico, and the third host country in North America: the United States.

By: Dan Tracey

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