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MLS Primer: Your Guide to Major League Soccer's Rules, Regulations, and General Shenanigans

We've put together a helpful guide to understanding the basic rules that govern the teams and players in Major League Soccer.

MLS President Don Garber holds a great deal of power when it comes to team personnel decisions.
MLS President Don Garber holds a great deal of power when it comes to team personnel decisions.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

As many Orlando City SC fans have already discovered, Major League Soccer is a one-of-a-kind league. While the rules on the pitch are largely the same as in other major soccer leagues, the league structure is almost entirely unique. How many DPs do we have again?

Or how about this: Did you know that team "owners" Flavio Augusto da Silva and Phil Rawlins don't actually own the team at all?

City will have many fans who are totally new to soccer in 2015, and even many of the original Lion supporters will be new to MLS. So, our goal here is to put together a convenient, readable guide to some of the finer details of the MLS structure. Call it MLS for Dummies if you like. Enjoy!


If you want to understand Major League Soccer, this is where you start. Let's make it as simple as possible: MLS does not have "owners." It has "Investor-Operators." Much as the term "single-entity" implies, Major League Soccer and all of its teams are considered a single, limited liability company. In fact, eight former MLS players challenged this as an illegal monopoly in 2002, and the courts ruled in favor of the MLS model.

In practice, what does this mean for Orlando City as a team? Well, City still largely has the power to scout players and make its own decisions. However, the salaries are paid by Major League Soccer, so any negotiations in that respect go through them. So, while Orlando certainly has a huge amount of input, when Orlando City signs a player, it's really Major League Soccer signing a player.

Single-entity is much maligned by many in the soccer community, largely because of how little transparency there has been in many MLS moves. Most notably, it appears MLS simply ignored many of its own rules in the acquisition of Clint Dempsey last year. Still, this degree of control and focus on measured, steady growth may be largely responsible for the huge success of the league, which has proven much more profitable and durable than many previous soccer ventures in the United States.

So, if the owners do not actually own the teams, then what's in it for them? Well, when the league came into existence in 1994, the expansion fee was $5 million. In 2014, the expansion fee paid for NYCFC was $100 million. As an investment, that's hard to beat. Also, owners have sources of income while they own the teams as well. MLS revenues from things like television contracts and sponsorships are split among the teams as dividends. Teams can also use their stadiums for other purposes (like concerts).

Salary Cap:

This is largely the same concept employed in other major American leagues such as the NBA or NFL. For 2014, the salary cap was $3.1 million per team, though you can expect that to be higher in 2015. Interestingly, clubs can sign up to 30 players total, and players 21-30 do not count against the cap. The major exception to the rule is...

Designated Players (DPs):

Each team currently is allowed to have up to three "Designated Players" on its roster. Many are reporting that this is likely to be increased to four for the 2015 season. In essence, this is an opportunity for teams to sign highly paid players and have their salaries not count against the salary cap. Designated players only count as $387.5k against the yearly salary cap, rather than the total amount of their contracts. Unlike the majority of players who are paid by Major League Soccer, the remainder of Designated Players' salaries are paid by the club itself.

Worth noting, there is a special clause for Designated Players under 20 years of age, where they only count for $150k against the salary cap. This would likely explain why Orlando City signed 19-year-old Bryan Rochez as a DP.

International Roster Slots:

International players must use what is called an "International Roster Slot" on each team. Each MLS team began with eight slots in 2014, and they are trade-able. As of now, Orlando is currently using slots for Darwin Cerén, Estrela, Kaká, Molino, Rafael Ramos, Pedro Ribeiro, and Róchez. Players with green cards or permanent residents (such as Englishmen Luke Boden and Harrison Heath) do not need to use a slot. Interestingly, the Sentinel reports that Cerén and Molino are in the process of trying to acquire green cards, which would be a huge help to the club.

Allocation Ranking:

This is the order in which teams have the right to acquire U.S. National Team players. Orlando was number two on the list, but made an agreement with the team in front of them (NYCFC) to allow them to acquire Brek Shea. Now, Orlando City drops to the bottom of the ranking, so they would need to trade for a higher allocation ranking to have a chance of signing another USMNT player.

Allocation Money:

This is money that is arbitrarily designated to each team each season by MLS. They can use this money to buy down players' salaries (to reduce their salary cap hit), sign or re-sign players, or trade it to other teams for other assets.

Discovery Signings:

Teams place a Discovery Claim on players they wish to sign that are not currently in MLS and who are not subject to the allocation order. This gives teams some leeway to sign players they scout and "discover" despite the single-entity system. For example, Orlando signed Honduran striker Bryan Rochez as a Discovery Signing. Each MLS team is able to use up to six of these each season, though expansion teams get ten.

Homegrown Players (HGPs):

Teams are able to sign players as HGPs if they have trained for at least one year in the club's youth development program and have trained 80 days with the academy during that year. This means the players do not have to enter the league through the SuperDraft or other mechanisms. Many star players have entered the league this way, including DeAndre Yedlin of Seattle Sounders FC and Gyasi Zardes for the LA Galaxy. Currently, Tommy Redding is Orlando's only HGP.

Hopefully this proves a useful guide for all you Orlando City fans out there who are new to Major League Soccer. It can't be stressed enough that MLS has a wide degree of leeway in following and applying these rules. To the consternation of many fans, that's the nature of a single-entity league. However, understanding these rules will give you at least a solid basic knowledge of how Major League Soccer operates.