Due to soccer’s popularity, most countries have multiple professional soccer divisions. In order to ensure each league has a following (unlike, say, the NFL and the AFL – where the NFL dominates all headlines) there is a system to reward or punish teams for their play. This system is called promotion and relegation.
At the end of each season, the teams at the bottom and top of the standings will be moved to different leagues. The top 3 finishers will be promoted to a higher division (If a team is already in the highest division in their country, a top finish guarantees them a spot in a European club competition and the TV money that goes along with it) and the worst 3 relegated to a lower one. In other words, entire teams are sent down to or moved up from the minor leagues to the big leagues. This ensures yearly drama for even the worst of teams.
Very few professional soccer leagues have a playoff system (MLS in the USA and the Primera División in Mexico are exceptions); instead, the team in first place at the end of the season wins the championship.
Standings are determined by a point system based on wins and losses. A win awards 3 points, a tie 1 point, and a loss 0 points. If two sides have the same number of points, tiebreakers are used, which, depending on the league, are some combination of goals scored or head-to-head competition.
American sports fans are used to seeing players switch teams through trades and free agency. Soccer doesn’t have the former and the latter is rarely an issue. (Oguchi Onyewu’s signing with Milan was a rare free agent event) In soccer, movement comes from player transfers, a fancy way to say rich teams literally buy players from less affluent clubs. Imagine if the Yankees didn’t have to give up any players to poach All-Stars from the Royals or Pirates; instead they could merely offer cold cash.
Yes, it does create top-heavy leagues. Only a few teams have a realistic shot at winning the title each year. However, as the player pool is literally world-wide, the leagues are not as thinned out as the concept would seem to suggest. The main benefit for the lower clubs is, naturally, the cash. The fees paid for player signings are sometimes the only reason they can stay in the black. Actually, the same can be said of successful clubs who face a mountain of debt. Manchester United, David Beckham’s first club, and perhaps the most famous sports team in the world, are currently in this situation – the supporters are afraid that the owners will sell off some of their best players to help balance the books.
Transfers are also the reason free agency doesn’t crop up very often. As a player’s contract nears its end, teams have a monetary incentive to sign the player even if they don’t plan to keep him around.
For most European leagues this is the beginning of the offseason (generally late May) through the beginning of the following season (late August/early September) and the month of January.
Clubs can sign players wily-nily, but they can only do so during the transfer window, a designated time-frame for conducting transfers.
Club teams can also loan players to other teams. This generally occurs when a wealthy club has an excess of players at one position. The team the player suits up for in that season pays his salary. Upon conclusion of the loan, the loaning club may elect to sell the player instead of taking him back to their team.
It is a bitter truth that not all soccer leagues are created equal. The money pouring into European leagues enables them to poach the best players from other countries. A ‘feeder’ league sells their players to more established ‘destination’ leagues. The traditional destination leagues are the top divisions in England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France.
Below are a few of the more famous leagues and their well-known teams
Premier League (England)
Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool
La Liga (Spain)
Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Valencia
Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Borussia Monchengladbach, Borussia Dortmund
Serie A (Italy)
AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Roma
Ligue 1 (France)
Olympique Lyonnais, AS Saint-Etienne, Olympique de Marseille, AS Monaco
Primera División (Mexico)
Chivas Guadalajara, Club América, Deportivo Toluca, Cruz Azul
Flamengo, São Paulo, Santos, Corinthians
Major League Soccer (United States)
DC United, Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Chicago Fire