MLS 101

MLS 101: Which Competitions Will Charlotte MLS Play In?

Charlotte MLS will start playing in 2021, but the regular Major League Soccer season isn’t the only competition the team could play in. In the latest edition of MLS 101, we look at all the potential silverware on offer…

Major League Soccer

The primary competition for Charlotte MLS is Major League Soccer, the professional league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).   

The regular season starts in late February and concludes in October, during which time every team strives to reach the playoffs and eventually win MLS Cup. As per FIFA’s standards, three points are awarded for a win, one point for a tie and no points for a loss. 

In 2020, MLS will consist of 26 teams, split evenly across the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. In 2021, however, with the addition of Charlotte MLS and Austin FC, the league will have 28 teams. In 2022, that figure will rise to 30 teams when Sacramento Republic FC and St. Louis start play. 

Every team plays 34 games in the regular season—17 at home and 17 away. In the 2019 season, a team will play everyone in its own conference twice, with 10 remaining games against opponents in the other conference. The addition of the two expansion franchises will change these numbers in 2021, but the format is likely to be the same. 

The team with the highest points tally across both conferences at the end of the season is awarded the Supporters Shield. In 2019, it was Los Angeles FC who took the Shield with 72 points from a 21-4-9 record. 

While the Supporters Shield recognizes a team’s work throughout the season, the MLS Cup champion is decided via playoffs. The MLS Cup Playoffs were expanded from 12 to 14 teams in 2019, with the top seven finishers in each conference earning qualification. 

Playoffs are in single elimination format, with the conference champions each earning a first-round bye. The higher seeded team hosts matches, with the MLS Cup Final host determined by overall points.


The reigning MLS Cup champions are Seattle Sounders, who beat Toronto FC 3-1 to win MLS Cup for the second time.

An expansion team has never won MLS Cup in its inaugural season, but Atlanta Utd and LAFC both made the MLS Cup Playoffs in their maiden campaigns.

U.S. Open Cup

The majority of national soccer federations around the world run a domestic cup competition alongside their league structure—and the USSF is no exception. 

The U.S. Open Cup has been played every year since 1904, and it is not just MLS teams that are eligible. The 2020 edition will feature a total of 100 amateur and professional teams from the top four leagues in the American soccer pyramid (MLS, The USL Championship, USL League One and the National Independent Soccer Association). 

The U.S. Open Cup, however, is not open to the three Canadian MLS teams, as they are not associated with US Soccer. Sorry, Canada. 

It’s a single elimination competition that begins in early May, but MLS teams do not enter until the Third Round. The final is usually held in August and all matches take place on weekdays so they do not interfere with the MLS weekend schedule.


Atlanta Utd are the reigning U.S. Open Cup champions, after beating Minnesota Utd 3-1 in the final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

The competition has been known to throw up an occasional upset, such as when the LA Galaxy were eliminated by the Carolina Railhawks (now known as North Carolina FC) in 2012. The only non-MLS to win the competition since the league’s inception are the Rochester Rhinos, who took the glory in 1999.  

Not only does the U.S. Open Cup winner earn prize money, but they also qualify for a place in the CONCACAF Champions League…

CONCACAF Champions League

Charlotte MLS will have automatic entry to MLS and the U.S. Open Cup, but will have to earn a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. It’s a 16-team intercontinental competition between the best teams in the CONCACAF region (North America, Central America and the Caribbean).

The CONCACAF Champions League runs concurrently to the MLS season, between February and May. The United States has four berths in the competition—they are awarded to the MLS Cup champions, the winners of the Eastern and Western conferences (one of whom will be the Supporter’s Shield champion) and the U.S. Open Cup champions.


Unlike the European Champions League, there’s no group stage. The 16 entrants are drawn directly into a knockout bracket format, with each round being decided by a two-leg home-and-away series.

Traditionally, the competition has been dominated by Mexican teams: a Liga MX team has won the last fourteen editions. The only MLS sides to have won the competition are DC United in 1998 and LA Galaxy in 2000. 

Leagues Cup

In 2019, a new competition was introduced that sees four teams from MLS and four from Liga MX compete in a single-elimination competition. It is a successor of sorts to the North American Superliga, which was contested between teams from the US and Mexico from 2007 to 2010. 

The 2019 Leagues Cup was hosted across the United States in the summer. The four MLS teams (Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake) were invitees, but in future editions the participants will be determined by competitive performance.


Cruz Azul won the inaugural contest last summer, beating fellow Mexican side Tigres in the final in Las Vegas.

Campeones Cup

The Campeones Cup is another contest that brings together the finest in MLS and Liga MX, but there are only two entrants.

The single match, which takes place in the summer, pits the MLS Cup champion against the overall winner of Liga MX, known as the Campeón de Campeones.

The Campeones Cup will see its third iteration this summer, when Seattle Sounders take on Club America. Not only will The Sounders have home advantage, but they will be encouraged by last season’s contest, where Club America were defeated by Atlanta Utd.


The Queen City Cup

There are a few regional contests that take place during regular MLS play, most of which were informally conceived by fans. 

The Cascadia Cup, for example, is a mini-tournament between Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps that determines a winner based on their head-to-head league results. 

Another example is The Heritage Cup, which awards an informal title to the winner of a series between the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders. The competition recognizes the fact that both teams carried their names forward from their North American Soccer League predecessors.

It’s possible that 2021 will see the reestablishment of the Queen City Cup. Both Charlotte and Cincinnati go by the Queen City moniker, and a competitive series developed between FC Cincinnati and the Charlotte Independence when both played in the USL. 

Charlotte and Cincinnati will both play in MLS in 2021, so the regal rivalry may resume!