In contrast to most other established professional sports leagues in the United States and abroad, but like most recently founded leagues, MLS is organized as a "single-entity" organization, in which the league (rather than individual teams) contracts directly with the players, in an effort to control spending and labor costs, share revenue, promote parity and maximize exposure. Each team has an owner/investor and the league allows an owner to have more than one team, although this may be more because of the lack of willing investors than the single-entity structure itself.

The full roster for each MLS team is limited to a maximum of 18 senior players, plus a maximum of ten roster-protected players. Of the 18 senior players, MLS teams are allowed a maximum of four senior (over the age of 25) international players on their active roster, as well as three youth international players (under the age of 25). In MLS, a player is not considered an international (regardless of eligibility to play for the U.S. National Team) if he is a U.S. citizen, is a resident alien (green card), or is under asylum protection. International players are so defined by U.S. Soccer to accord with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization laws, which prohibit an employer from limiting the number of permanent or temporary residents, refugees, and asylees

As a result of these restrictions, most of the players in the league are from the United States, but some are renowned international players, with Latin America and the Caribbean being the home region for the largest number of international players.

In Europe, MLS is often viewed as a 'retirement league' on par with the old NASL, where stars who are past their prime can collect easy paychecks. Although this may have been true of the early years of the league, far fewer older players have been imported recently. Lothar Matthäus spent a forgettable year with the MetroStars, Mexican star Luis Hernández was a big flop in LA, Korean star Hong Myung-Bo failed to earn a position in the Galaxy's starting lineup, and the league has seen a high percentage of failures from less notable foreign veterans. The league has instead focused more on acquiring talented young players from the CONCACAF region, such as recent successes Amado Guevara, Carlos Ruiz, and Damani Ralph. MLS has also become a springboard for young American players looking to join wealthier European teams, with Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Mathis, Bobby Convey and DaMarcus Beasley being the most notable recent exports. A number of young Americans have also chosen to come back to play in the league instead of languishing on Europe's benches and reserve teams including Gus Kartes, Taylor Twellman, and Philip Salyer. Another young American, Landon Donovan, was, at his request, loaned to MLS by his German Bundesliga club, Bayer Leverkusen; although Donovan seemed content to remain in America, his performances in MLS and international play compelled Bayer to recall him in 2005.

Unlike most other nations, there is currently no system of promotion and relegation in American soccer; although repeated suggestions for such a system have been made, such a system is rare in any sport in America, and the United Soccer Leagues' relatively weak support makes such a vertical integration quite difficult. It is highly unlikely that any professional sport in the United States will have any such system in the foreseeable future, both because of lack of popular minor league teams, and certain opposition from team owner/operators in MLS.

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