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How Do Soccer Leagues Work? Competition Overview

Soccer leagues hold scores for the teams throughout the season. Points are awarded to teams for winning, 3 and for drawing, 1. At the end of the season, the league position determines if they are champions, competition qualifiers or relegated.

Soccer teams in leagues normally play each other over the course of the season twice, home and away. If the league is only small they will play three, or even four games against each other.

This is a brief overview of soccer leagues, but they don’t all work like that. There are different systems across the world and they again differ in cup competitions and for leagues that are not the tops ones.

Knowing how the leagues’ work creates a better atmosphere, the game has added intensity when there is something on the line.

A win gives the team 3 points and a draw gives each team 1 point for a league match, but during a knock-out stage, the aggregate score over two games is what matters.

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A season is played over the space of a year and the games determine what position of the league the team is in. To keep the leagues refreshed and open for other teams to compete, teams are promoted and relegated.

There is only one winner of a league, and sometimes three teams are relegated into the league below for the following season – this enables three new teams to be promoted. For a cup competition, there are not teams relegated, if they end up at the bottom of the league or near there, they are put out of the competition,


The fixtures of who plays who is decided before the start of the season, so the teams can prepare. The season is split into two, and a team will play half of their games at home and a half away.

Fixtures for cup games and competitions are not decided until the competing teams are decided. The draws normally take place a month or two before the games are due to begin.

MLS Soccer Final - MLS All-Stars vs Real Madrid
MLS Soccer Final – MLS All-Stars vs Real Madrid (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Anthony L. Taylor/Released)

Major League Soccer

The MLS has 26 competing teams and is set to increase to 30 in 2020. During a season, the leagues are split into two, the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. Due to the travelling distance between the two areas, they don’t compete until the end of the season if they reach the playoffs.


Seven teams from each conference division will reach the cup playoffs to try and win the MLS Cup. Those teams are at the top of the table based on points and if level, wins, goal difference, then total goals scored.

The two top teams are not required to play the first eliminator game, so they are given a bye and wait for the next round. There is only one match per tie played until the semi-final and those matches are played at the home of the highest-seeded team. The final is contested between the winners of the semi-finals in a one-game match hosted at the highest seeded team’s stadium.


Unlike the majority of leagues around the world, MLS does not have a relegation system in place. This is because the league is a franchise with a set amount of teams competing. This allows for all teams to compete next season but it loses some of the magic for a battle to stay up.

Do different soccer leagues play each other?

Only for a pre-season friendly or if they are drawn against each other in a cup game.

Premier League

The premier league format is similar to most others around the world. During a season each team plays each other team twice, home and away. The team with the most points at the end of the season, at the top of the table is the winner of the league.

The EPL consists of 20 teams and each team plays a total of 38 games.

Relegations and Promotions

After all the games are played, the bottom three teams will be relegated into the Championship, which is the 2nd tiered league. Two teams from the Championship will be promoted automatically to the Premier League leaving one place to be decided in playoffs between four teams.

Champions League

The Champions League begins with leagues with four teams in each. The leagues are decided with a seeding system. This is to make sure there is an even distribution of the best teams amongst the leagues.

Each team plays each other home and away, and after six games the winner of the group progresses to play the runner up of another team from a different league.

These next games are the knockout stages of the competition and after playing home and away, the winner is decided on the team who scores the most goals on aggregate over two matches – with more weight added to the team that scores more away from home.

World Cup

The World Cup works the same way as the Champions League. Teams in divisions of four with the top two teams progressing to the next stage. There is, of course, no relegation, just an exit from the competition fo the two lowest placed teams.

The two progressing teams will face teams from another league in the playoff rounds. The first-placed team will face a second-placed team from another division winner. These games are played over 90 minutes with extra time of 30 minutes played if the scoreline is still level.

Then onto a penalty shootout if there is still no decider after the added time. For more useful guides, see the articles below or visit our home page.

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