Minnesota has been awarded rights to a Major League Soccer franchise, which begs the question from a lot of you, we imagine: What exactly is Major League Soccer? We'll attempt to give you a primer, catching you up to speed on MLS and what you can expect when the Minnesota team — if it can finalize a stadium plan — begins playing in 2017 or 2018:
Brief history: Est. 1996
MLS began play in 1996 with just 10 teams, and college or pro football stadiums were the typical home venues. Various teams have folded and been born, with the league now doubled in size since its inception and most teams playing in soccer-specific stadiums. The Los Angeles Galaxy (five) and D.C. United (four) have combined for nine of the 19 MLS Cup titles. Los Angeles won the championship last season (above), beating New England 2-1 in extra time in Carlson, Calif. It was the final MLS game for retiring Galaxy star Landon Donovan (hoisting trophy).
The teams: 20 and growing
Twenty currently playing — 17 in the U.S., three in Canada — split into two 10-team conferences. Four more franchises are on the way, with the league having a goal of 24 teams by 2020. Atlanta will begin play in 2017, while Minnesota and a second Los Angeles franchise are slated to start in 2017 or 2018. Miami is in line to get a franchise, too, if it can get a stadium deal worked out.
Columbus Crew SC
New England Revolution
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Orlando City SC
Sporting Kansas City
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders FC
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
The season: It's a marathon
Length: The regular season consists of 34 matches (so Minnesota will have 17 home matches). It began March 6 this year and will end Oct. 25. Playoffs extend much farther; the 2013 MLS Cup in Kansas City was on Dec. 7 and was played in freezing temperatures. Most matches are on Saturdays or Sundays, with a few sprinkled in midweek.
Playoffs: Identical to the NFL in that 12 teams make the postseason, six from each conference, and the top two from each conference get first-round byes. The first round is just one match; the conference semifinals and finals are two-match, total-goal series. And the MLS Cup is a single match.
TV: Every MLS game in 2015 will be televised either nationally or regionally, while most are also available online.
The players: Torch is passed
Star appeal: Landon Donovan, the league's all-time leading scorer with 144 goals, retired after the 2014 season, but there are plenty of other players recognizable to casual fans. While some of the top American players are overseas, U.S. national team standouts Clint Dempsey (Seattle) and Jozy Altidore (Toronto) are in the league, while several European veterans — including Robbie Keane and David Villa — help bolster MLS as well, following in the footsteps of David Beckham. Most of the top players in the world still generally play in Europe during their primes.
Local connections: Current United coach Manny Lagos was a longtime MLS standout, as was fellow St. Paul native Tony Sanneh. Teal Bunbury, who was born in Canada but raised in Minnesota — where he played at Shattuck-St. Mary's — plays for MLS' New England Revolution.
The draft: The four-round MLS SuperDraft was held in January, with UConn forward Cyle Larin going No. 1 overall to Orlando City, an expansion team this year. Minnesota can expect to get a very high draft pick, possibly No. 1 depending on the year it enters, during its expansion season. Beyond that, non-playoff teams choose in reverse order of how they finished, which will give local fans another draft to think about (and another tanking conversation to have).
The fans: A different breed
Demographics: Nearly half of MLS fans (44 percent) are between the ages of 18 and 34, while another 36 percent are between 35 and 49, according to the league. Many teams in the league have capitalized on that relatively young fan base by catering to the craft beer-drinking hipster millennial crowd. Also per the league's numbers, 32 percent of MLS fans are Hispanic, the largest percentage representation among any U.S. pro sports league.
Attendance: Average attendance in MLS in 2014 was a record 19,148 — higher than the average in the NBA and NHL, though also with fewer home dates (17 regular-season home matches compared to 41 in both of the other leagues). Seattle's average attendance of 43,734 skews those numbers slightly, since the Sounders draw nearly twice as many fans as any other team in the league. But 17 of the 20 league teams averaged at least 16,000 fans in 2014, and overall attendance went up nearly 3 percent from 2013 to 2014.
Hot spots: Seattle is clearly the gold standard, having success sharing a stadium with the NFL's Seahawks when other MLS franchises struggled in that type of setting. But franchises in Kansas City, Portland, Vancouver, Toronto and Salt Lake City are among the other major success stories.
The finances: Rising fortunes
Team values: The average franchise was valued at $103 million by Forbes in 2013. The league has TV rights deals with Fox, ESPN and Univision worth an estimated $90 million per year, through the 2022 season. The league and individual teams have also profited heavily from sponsorship deals, including advertising on the fronts of jerseys. Once on shaky ground financially, the league is far more stable now.
Ticket prices: ABC Tickets released a study in 2012 comparing prices in the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL and MLS. Major League Soccer, at $26.15 per game, was the cheapest of the five — coming a little lower than MLB, which was $26.91. The NBA and NHL are about double that, while the NFL checked in at more than $100 per ticket in the study. While there is not reliable data for more recent seasons, the majority of seats at a large sample of stadiums for 2015 appear to be in the $25-$45 range.
Salaries: Player salaries have been a point of contention and led to labor unrest earlier this year. The league and players reached a new labor deal shortly before the start of the season, avoiding a work stoppage. Under terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, the minimum player salary is $60,000 a year and will grow to $70,000 by the end of the deal. That's many times less than the average salary in other U.S. pro leagues. Brazilian import Kaka, who joined Orlando City SC this season, is the highest-paid player in league history at $7.2 million per season.