Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Major League Soccer's player personnel system becomes a little more transparent

Major League Soccer does a lot of things that a lot of people like, and a lot of things that a lot of people don't like.

Major League Soccer’s player personnel system becomes a little more transparent

Ali Curtis during his playing days with D.C. United. (Ricky Carioti/AP file photo)
Ali Curtis during his playing days with D.C. United. (Ricky Carioti/AP file photo)

INDIANAPOLIS - Major League Soccer does a lot of things that a lot of people like, and a lot of things that a lot of people don't like.

One of the league's most-disliked aspects is its lack of transparency in player personnel matters. The league office does not disclose salaries, lengths of contracts, and most famously the "allocation money" system that sends cash between teams in trades.

But on Friday at the NSCAA Convention, a moment of increased transparency occurred.

Ali Curtis and Tim Bezbatchenko, who work in MLS' player relations department, gave an hour-long seminar on how the league acquires players.

In front of a room full of coaches, players, ex-players and journalists, Curtis and Bezbatchenko spoke simply and frankly.

They explained the process of how a college player can get a Generation Adidas contract, and specifically noted that most GA contracts last three seasons.

They explained the "discovery" process for teams that want to sign international players, and specifically noted that the league office - not the clubs - handles visa and international transfer certificate processing.

They also specifically noted that when clubs make lists of discovery players, they are limited to 10 people; and noted that a club must display genuine interest in that player - in other words, put a contract on the table - in order for that player to stay on the discovery list.

They discussed the Designated Player system, and stated that the charge a club pays to have a third designated player is distributed as allocation money to all teams that have never had a third DP.

And they discussed how youth players progress through a club's academy en route to the senior team.

There were plenty of details that Curtis and Bezbatchenko did not discuss, to be sure. But on the whole, it was a frank conversation, and it was refreshing to hear.

Some of you who've been following MLS for long enough may have heard Curtis' name before. He played college soccer at Duke, then spent three and a half years as a pro with a combination of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, D.C. United and Dallas Burn.

Curtis retired in 2004 and spent three years at J.P. Morgan. In 2007, he returned to MLS, this time to work in the league's front office.

After his NSCAA seminar ended, I approached Curtis for an interview. He was happy to oblige.

I am not going to make any editorial comments on his remarks here. I will let you all judge them for yourselves.

As a former MLS player, what does it mean to you to now be working on player signings? You have watched from up close as the league's rules have changed over the years.

It's very special. You feel fortunate to be involved in the league in any capacity as a player, as a fan, as an administrator. I really enjoy it. The league has grown a lot. I remember there was a time in 2002 when I played for D.C. United, and there were only 10 teams. Now there are 19 teams.

So to really be involved in the growth of the sport is exciting. I enjoy it. I watch games on the weekends, I enjoyed it as a player playing, and I now enjoy working with the players and the teams to try to improve their rosters and the on-field product.

You have watched Major League Soccer become more transparent in its dealings over the years. That process is probably going a little faster now than it used to. In your position, you can potentially help speed up that process even more, as regards disclosing such things as transfer fees, allocation money, salaries and contract lengths.

How do you want that to proceed?

I think it's important to be transparent. If people ask you a straight question it's important to give them a straight answer. At the league office, if someone asks us a straight question, we try to answer it. We try to be as transparent as possible. Certain things are what I would qualify as confidential, and the teams want them to be confidential.

But also, you're seeing greater access over the last few years in terms of players and their salaries. The players' union publishes the salaries each year. So I think transparency is a good thing in most cases.

Among the things that have been kept private over the years is the lengths of player contracts, and the number of guaranteed years versus option years in contracts. When do you think we will get to the point where that information is more publicly available?

You can't put a timeline on those things. Those are conversations with the players' union internally. I think one of the things that has been really fantastic, particularly over the last few years when we agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, is that our relationship with the players' union and the players has improved financially.

The reason why it has improved substantially is that the communication between the league office and the players' union has increased significantly. As a player, that was something that was a concern, and that was important to me - communication from the league office to the players. And I think it increases and improves each year.

Do you think we will see in the next CBA an agreement on greater disclosure of player salary information?

I can't comment on what we would see in the next CBA.

Is that something you think would be collectively bargained?

I can't comment on any issues of the collective bargaining agreement or what would be included.

There is a perception among a portion of the fan base in MLS that the weighted lottery and allocation systems for American players who come from abroad into the league are disadvantages to American players, relative to the fact that international players can be signed without any such process. What is your take on that?

I know you have different perceptions of a variety of different aspects of our business. In one situation, if a fan or someone has a perception that the lottery process or allocation is unfair, in other situations you've got fans or other individuals who are vested in the sport and believe it's a very fair mechanism.

Those mechanisms that we use to bring players into the league are things that we evaluate every year. We're adapting, we're growing and we're always looking at ways to improve our game. What worked 10-15 years ago, we'll look at on an annual basis to see if it makes sense for our business as it continues to grow.

There are a lot of distinct voices on MLS and how it operates just among the owners. From the people that you've talked to, how much agreement is there at this point on the nature of the sytem?

I think that the ownership group is very tight. I think when you're looking to build a league and to grow teams, an important part of that strategy is having the right, engaged ownership group that believes in the same vision.

Earlier in our presentation, we started with the vision - our strategic principles. That vision and those strategic principles - which govern our decision-making on a day-to-day basis – those were developed by our ownership group.

So we're very pleased with the ownership group. The direction flows from them, and I think they are all on the same page. But it's good to have a diverse ownership group.

One more question. Another of the things that people talk about often in regards to seeking increased transparency from MLS is allocation money. Everybody knows how the system works, but the quantities of money exchanged aren't always out there. When do you think we will see that area become more transparent?

I think we're always having a conversation on a number of different areas within our business. I don't like to bifurcate it as the transparent or non-transparent.

It's just that there are areas of our business - whether that's allocation money, the lottery process, looking at how we do our SuperDraft [and] our Combine, what we do with our Designated Player rule, [which] has evolved over time – so with regards to transparency of allocation money, that's something that we may adapt or it may be modified moving forward.

We just need to evaluate things in real time, and plan for those things.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
About this blog
The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Reach Jonathan at jtannenwald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2330.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
Latest Videos:
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected