The United States’ top-tier professional soccer league is going pretty well at the moment. But are there ways we could improve Major League Soccer?

MLS is approaching its 30th anniversary, which will coincidentally dovetail with the 2026 FIFA World Cup, to be hosted mostly in the USA. By 2025, there will be 30 teams in the league, closely mimicking America’s other “Big 4” professional sports leagues. Most clubs are playing in purpose-built soccer venues (or drawing crowds that necessitate playing in larger NFL stadiums). And they’ve captured lightning in a bottle for the moment, with the signing of Lionel Messi drawing more eyes than ever to the competition.

However, the league still retains multiple quirks, oddities, and handicaps that hold it back from its true potential. With interest higher than ever thanks to the Messi spotlight, there has never been a better time to lose the training wheels and bring MLS more in line with the world’s elite competitions.

There are some really simple, basic things that could be done to improve Major League Soccer. There’s also a handful of more drastic changes, too.

1. Real Grass across the board

Has artificial turf technology gotten better? Sure. But the highest level soccer in the world is played on natural grass. For instance, a plastic pitch at someplace like Camp Nou, Old Trafford, the Allianz Arena, or any top league would be unthinkable. Why should it be acceptable for players in the United States?

Does weather cause a factor in playing surface choice? Sure. Places like Montréal, New England, Portland, and Seattle can be tricky with grass. But MLS plays mostly during the summer, grass can work.

If installing grass is untenable because of overuse by multiple sports, the solution is simple:

2. Phase out shared venues

The debacle of NYCFC playing home games at Yankee Stadium appears to eventually be on its way out, mercifully. But no matter the scenario, playing in a shared venue promotes a “second fiddle” perception of any club. Regardless if ticket demand warrants playing in the bigger stadiums, each of these buildings was primarily constructed for something other than the soccer team. And in some cases, like Chicago and New England, ticket demand certainly does NOT match with the larger capacity venue, which produces terrible visuals of empty seats.

Yeah, it’s a massive investment for these owners to build new venues. But these are billionaires we’re talking about. If they, and MLS, are truly serious about investing in the game and making MLS an elite league, then go all the way. Imagine what it would say about the game in the US if clubs like Seattle and Atlanta built 50,000-seat soccer stadiums?

3. Lose the wacky roster and salary rules

MLS was built on the principle that it needed to control spending to avoid the shambolic collapse that befell its predecessor, the NASL in the early 1980s.

But we’re almost 30 years into this venture. MLS has become the longest-lasting and most stable American first-division league ever. There are no fly-by-night ownership groups in the mix. The strange mechanisms put in place to protect the league in earlier days are no longer necessary.

In 2023 MLS did ditch the Allocation Order process. But the Discovery Process, Designated Players, the SuperDraft, Homegrown Players, and TAM/GAM funding pools overly complicate roster building. The annual salary cap for 2023 is a paltry $5.2 million. That’s less than most players on a single elite club overseas earn – but for an entire team.

A salary cap is fine – but it should be substantially increased to allow clubs to spend how they please without needing a bunch of funky special rules to circumvent it. It can and should be so much simpler.

4. Adopt Goal-Line Technology

While it’s now standard practice in most major soccer leagues, MLS still does not use goal-line technology.

Every team is playing in a modern venue that can accommodate it. There’s no excuse. It’s a no-brainer to up the level of professionalism in the league.


As it stands in 2023, the MLS Cup Playoffs are, frankly, ridiculous. 18 of the 29 teams – nine from each conference – make the postseason tournament. 62% of the entire league.

Parity and giving every team a better chance at glory is one thing. But that many teams getting into the playoffs is just comical. Especially when you consider every MLS team already now plays in two other tournaments during the season – the U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup (plus the teams playing in Champions Cup, too).

And the playoffs use two different formats depending on the round. The opening wild card round uses single elimination. Then it’s a 3-game series in round one. Everything after that goes back to single elimination. It’s just unnecessarily complex.

Using playoffs to crown a league champion is engrained in the American sports culture, and that’s okay. It’s one thing that can, and maybe should, be a little different than the rest of the world’s soccer leagues. But let’s pare it down.

Reduce it to the top four (or eight if you must) teams. A quick, single elimination bracket over two or three weeks. Done. This ups the importance of the regular season and shortens the overall campaign. This leads us to…

6. Stop Playing through international breaks

MLS still often plays over FIFA windows, when players are called away to national team duty. This happened recently when their new star attraction Messi was not on hand as Inter Miami played Sporting KC, as he was with Argentina.

Reducing the length of the playoffs would give a little more room to avoid the FIFA windows. And we know they’ve promoted the new schedule format that is (mostly) Saturdays, but squeeze in some weekday games if needed to make room.

As the league continues to grow in stature, more and more high-profile internationals will be playing in MLS. Unimportant backwater leagues and lower divisions are the competitions that don’t stop for international breaks. If MLS wants to present itself as a truly elite league, it makes no sense to not completely pause for these windows.

7. Reduce the number of teams in the top division

MLS is one of a few leagues in the world that runs significantly afoul of the FIFA recommendation for the maximum size of a top-division league. Just this year, for example, France’s Ligue 1 shrunk to 18 teams by relegating an extra team and promoting one less from 2022/23.

But you can’t just contract teams from the league entirely (unless you happen to be the Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny, or Chivas USA – RIP lads). So how can you pare the league roster back…

8. Embrace promotion and relegation – even if not all the way

Always a controversial issue, and always balked at by MLS executives as well as some fans and commentators.

But like it or not, promotion and relegation is the global standard for the club game. Every one of the world’s biggest and most serious leagues uses it. Every nation that’s ever won a World Cup has it.

But even if MLS doesn’t want to link with the rest of the American pyramid, they could still pull it off. They can keep their exclusive ownership club and single-entity model, which keeps franchise values high. But they can add a unique competitive wrinkle that would make them stand out amongst the US sporting landscape (before USL possibly does it). And they could do it as early as 2025 if they really wanted to. How? By basically using it as a scheduling mechanism within the existing league structure.

Pro/rel – The MLS way:

Instead of splitting the league into geographical east/west conferences, you split it based on the record on the field. In 2025, there’ll be 30 teams, so you could do 18 teams in “MLS1,” 12 in “MLS2.” To keep up appearances and make everyone feel better about themselves, they could do the old trick of branding the divisions so as to not directly denote the level. Call the top 15 circuit “MLS Premier” or something like that, and the 2nd level just “MLS.” Move to a standard round-robin schedule – 34 games (2x every other team) for MLS1, 33 games (3x every other team) for MLS2.

Everybody still gets the same share of media rights revenues, new teams still pay expansion fees to get in, and all that. The entire league entity still fits under the Division 1 sanctioning level, it just affects who is, and isn’t, is eligible for MLS Cup playoffs in any given year (you could tweak CONCACAF spots and USOC entry tiers as well if desired). The MLS2 teams would instead be fighting for promotion (which could include playoffs for extra drama and higher chances).

When it comes to new teams, this makes it possible to keep expanding (and cashing expansion fee checks) while having a place for those teams to go. Once you fill up MLS2 to the desired number, you could split that again regionally or into a further 3rd tier to make room for ever more clubs. All are nestled within the protective umbrella of MLS’s existing status of 1st division sanctioning and ownership standards.

If an existing USL (or anyone else) club wants to join, they can do so the same way the likes of Portland, Minnesota, Montréal, and so on have in the past.

Increasing the number of spots in the overall league setup also allows for the addition of new teams (or integration of existing non-MLS clubs) into existing league markets. Places like Chicago, the San Francisco Bay area, South and Central Florida, Atlanta, or Dallas-Fort Worth could all foster intense local derbies. Even the mega-markets New York and LA which already have two teams each could theoretically support one or two more clubs in the area. But without creating a way to go far beyond 30 teams, this is unfeasible.

It’s up to MLS

The powers that be don’t have to evolve MLS from what it is today if they don’t want to. The league can continue on its current path, continue to make money for investors, and middle along in the second tier of the global soccer landscape. But with some adjustments, Major League Soccer could eventually actually live up to its name.