Commentary / MLS

MLS 4.0, and the past, present, and future of MLS versions.


If you consider yourself a die hard fan of Major League Soccer, then you’re probably familiar with the MLS x.0 moniker, an informal way of differentiating between the various stages of growth within the league over the years. Even more casual fans may be familiar with the terminology in some capacity, as its use in popular MLS culture has grown in recent years. Atlanta United supporters even went as far as to include “MLS 3.0” within their MLS Cup tifo back in 2018, a nod to their club being the dominant force in Major League Soccer’s newest stage of existence. 

But what exactly differentiates the various “.0” iterations of the league, what version is the league in now, what differentiates it from previous renditions?

With significant transfers both in and out of the league, and unique club identities popping up across the league that signal MLS may arguably transition into its 4th distinct era, now is the perfect time to dive into all that is MLS “.0”.

MLS 1.0

So, where does this all begin?

MLS 1.0, the humble beginnings of the United States’ newest take on professional soccer. To skip over most of what you likely already know, Major League Soccer came into being as part of the U.S. 1994 World Cup bid and began play in 1996 with ten teams. The league was, shall we say, funky.

Uniforms looked like something out of Back to The Future II, penalty kicks were taken from a run, and the clock counted down. It was soccer as 1990’s U.S. culture saw it, and by and large, it worked. The league survived several near-death moments, established its footing, and by 2007 had become the most successful U.S. soccer league in modern history. 

MLS 2.0

Enter David Beckham.

Beckham’s arrival in 2007 serves to indicate the distinct transitional moment between MLS 1.0 and the new and improved MLS 2.0. Gone were the fears of folding, and arrived were international superstars, soccer specific stadiums, and expansion teams that instantly drew in packed houses of almost 20,000. It was a new lease on life for Major League Soccer, and the league was attempting to establish itself as a genuine name in the crowded American sports landscape. 

For all intents and purposes, it worked too.

While the arrival of past-their-prime superstars earned MLS the “retirement league” nickname from those abroad (and those in the know domestically), for the average U.S. sports fan who knew little about the beautiful game, names like Beckham and Thierry Henry legitimized the league and drove record attendances over the 2010’s. Major League Soccer was in a state of growth, and for the first time, the league had some pop-culture appeal. Combine that with a USMNT that had made waves in two straight World Cups and things on the pitch looked as good as they ever had for the U.S.

Off the pitch things were taking off too.

While MLS 2.0 could be quantified exclusively by the arrival of the European elite, expansion and the Soccer Specific Stadium boom associated with the era was no small part of it. Of all the current MLS soccer specific stadiums, only three were built prior to 2007. This investment in real estate and infrastructure signaled a new confidence in the leagues economic future, and teams valuations suddenly started to include stadiums worth almost as much, if not more, than the franchise itself. 

The franchise – the final part of MLS 2.0.

In the first ten years of existence, Major League Soccer only added three teams to its original ten – a total of 12 after Tampa Bay folded. Beginning in 2007 however, the league went on an expansion crusade, adding ten teams to the league in an eight year period from 2007 and 2015. These clubs featured their own stadiums, a unique style of branding that saw American naming conventions meshed with European ideals, and fanbases that, for the most part, took on their teams with open arms. Stadiums were full, teams featured the beginnings of true star power, and the league seemed to be gathering a head of steam.

MLS 3.0

Then came 2017, Atlanta United, and the dawning of MLS 3.0.

When Atlanta United was announced as the league’s next expansion franchise in 2015, many didn’t know what to expect. Atlanta wasn’t a city known for having the best sports fandom in the world, and a recent history of apathetic performances on the field left the city largely an afterthought amongst the U.S. sporting public. Couple poor attendance across the existing teams with the outright failure of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers a decade earlier, and many worried what would be in store for the expansion franchise.

Their worry was wasted. 

Then the Five Stripes burst onto the scene, playing their inaugural season at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd stadium. MLS 3.0 wasn’t just created, it exploded across the greater footballing world. Each game featured 55,000 fans that refused to sit, a team that played fast and furious South American style football with a distinct lack of global superstars, and a backing track of some of the most rowdy supporters in the league. By the time the team moved into their semi-purpose built Mercedes Benz Stadium, upwards of 70,000 fans were turning up per game and the club was burning a trail toward MLS Cup.

Atlanta’s arrival showed that soccer could thrive by embracing the existing culture of a city, investing in fan experience, and building a team around youthful South Americans – while foregoing the star signing that clubs like Orlando and NYCFC seemed to think would bring in the ticket sales. MLS 3.0 featured the construction of larger, nicer soccer specific stadiums, and a series of expansion teams whose debuts showcased each city’s unique pride and culture around the beautiful game. Of the top five teams in MLS attendance, three are MLS 3.0 expansion sides.

MLS 3.0 was all about exciting soccer, exciting stadiums, and reverting from the European emulating practices of 2.0 in favor of a new, uniquely U.S. style of top-flight football. Clubs like Cincinnati, LAFC, and Austin all helped to bolster MLS’ brand as an exciting, young league, and even older clubs like Columbus revitalized their fan bases by rebranding and moving into new, more modern venues.

But if this is MLS 3.0, when will 4.0 begin, what will it look like, and how will we know it’s here?

According to some it’s already arrived. 

MLS 4.0

This MLS season has been an interesting one to say the least.

The races in both conferences are tighter than ever, it seems like for the first time in recent memory we still don’t know what conference the Supporters Shield will go to – and we’re more than midway through the season. Parity is at an all time high, and aiding in that is the fact that for once, clubs are embracing their own unique identities on the pitch.

Now, sure this isn’t entirely new.

Clubs have always had a style of soccer they prefer playing, but for the first time clubs are taking on their own identities. Clubs like the Union exist to develop homegrown talent and plug it in where it works. They aren’t concerned with signing international superstars when they know they can develop talent within their own walls that can compete with that group anyway.

On the other side of the spectrum, both LA Clubs prefer to make large signings that not only capture the attention of their fanbase, but stock their clubs with a handful of true difference-makers capable of winning silverware. More still, clubs like Atlanta and Austin focus on building rosters of like minded footballers that share in their approach to the game to create teams of relatively low cost, high reward athletes. 

Each club isn’t simply playing their own brand of football, they’re building entire club identities around how they want to sign players, and how they plan on competing. You have clubs that are buyers, sellers, and in between.

Gone are the days where every front office is trying to find a way to bring in the next ex-european superstar (Zlatan discovery rights anyone?) What’s more, for the first time in league history, players are spurning larger international clubs to sign with MLS teams. Major League Soccer has gained the reputation as a league where emerging players can test their skill, where established players can play competitive football, and where former European players can continue their career at a high level.

Added onto that is the fact that a not insignificant contingent of World Cup-bound USMNT players got their start in MLS and it’s academies. Brendan Aaronson immediately springs to mind. If the league continues the trend of turning out the latest and greatest men’s senior team players, there’s every reason to believe that it will continue to see its talent improve, as more and more young Americans decide to remain home for a chance at the national team. 

And of course no mention of the USMNT can go without a subsequent mention of the 2026 World Cup, to be hosted primarily in the States… but speculation on MLS 5.0 can wait at least a little…


  1. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Pretty much spot on. With one more team still to come (Las Vegas?) & the start of maybe how we watch all sports television with the Apple streaming deal starting in 2023, MLS 5.0 speculation doesn’t leave much on the table to accomplish.
    What’s left to accomplish but more growth from this foundation?
    Expansion of existing stadiums?
    Maybe a future of CCL being combined with Copa CONMEBOL Libertadores?
    There really isn’t that much left if there?

    • Streaming is the catalyst. They’re now a featured piece on the largest brand in the world’s proprietary platform for at least a decade. It should represent a sea change in how the league is presented and (hopefully) consumed.

  2. Good read. I think the most significant sea change, perhaps what might be the hallmark of MLS 4.0, is the emergence of MLS as a legitimate selling league to the biggest clubs in Europe. That U.S. players out of the academy and young South American players see MLS as a legitimate place to advance their careers and earn a chance to play in Europe is really pretty big.

    Back when I first started watching this league around the time the Union was formed, I had a hard time picturing that reality. It’s definitely here now. I think the Union have really shown the rest of the league how to make a team based on a philosophy of developing youth, working them into a system and selling them on to Europe. I know we’re not the first to do it, but I think we’ve been really doing it best.

  3. Kip Leitner says:

    I think this is a good summary.

    I know it’s controversial, but I wish the league winner was determined by “best record wins” and MLS would dispatch with the playoffs. Because so many teams make the playoff, we see a lot of substandard on-the-field play because players figure “I can do whatever I want because we’ll probably be in the playoffs.” So we’re see lots of needless yellow and red cards, poor defense, lack of effort and lots of unseemly bickering and sniping at referees who are just doing their job. And the final 5 minutes of the many of the last games I’ve watched included behavior that looks like it belonged at a shuck-and-jive junior high school rumble over who stepped on whose toes.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I sort of agree with you (and personally have always felt the Supporter’s Shield should be regarded higher than MLS Cup). The only issue is that the league has grown so big that the schedules have become so unbalanced that it doesn’t make sense to have it as the sole determiner.

    • I think MLS Cup should be sort of an end-of-season competition similar to how it is now, but the East and West conf. champions are decided by topping their conference table. With 14 teams in each and more coming, this is pretty possible right now. This way you’d still get an exciting playoff championship but also have a real reason to top the table of your conference. You’d need to find a way to balance schedules.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Would be neat to maybe do Eastern playoffs winner (East Champ) v Western playoffs winner (West Champ) – giving you one champion… who then goes on to play the Supporter Shield winner – with the winner crowned as MLS Cup champion?
        If the Supporters Shield winner is the same team as the East or West Champ, then there is only one game – meaning there is no East v West game, for MLS Cup. Would put the emphasis on the Supporter Shield. Of course you would have to balance the schedule. Just a thought

      • I think you’d retire the Supporter’s Shield. You’d essentially be awarding one for each conference but elevating it to conference championship.

        Right now you have 28 teams. Four more are confirmed as joining soon. 32 teams, 16 teams in each conference, home and away between each team would mean 30 games. You could pad that schedule with another 8 against the other conference for a season schedule. Conference Title can be decided solely by inter-conference record while full record seeds MLS Cup… It’s a lot of math, but this league is getting really big.

  4. Union fan says:

    / Atlanta United supporters even went as far as to include “MLS 3.0” within their MLS Cup tifo back in 2018, a nod to their club being the dominant force in Major League Soccer’s newest stage of existence. /

    LOL- this didn’t age too well.

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