One thing Major League Soccer can do to get better quickly
As Major League Soccer's 18th season rolls on, many of the league's fans are in a state of mind similar to that of many humans of the same age.
One thing Major League Soccer can do to get better quickly
I've been working on this column for a few weeks now. It deals with a subject that has been of increasing consequence recently. It might not start a new conversation, but I hope it at least adds proper context to the conversation that is already happening.
I know this piece is really long. I wanted to make sure that I really hit every detail in putting it together. I hope you'll take the time to study what I've written about. It's worth the effort.
As Major League Soccer's 18th year rolls on, many fans are in a state of mind similar to that of many humans of the same age.
Sometimes, they carry the self-assurance that comes with the freedom earned in early adulthood. And sometimes, they find themselves in swings of self-reflection. The world is vast, and the forces across sit can at times be overwhelming.
The resulting mix of emotions has led a wide swath of the American soccer fan base to plunge itself into yet another existential crisis.
Yes, that phrase is in some ways over-dramatic. But those of you who've been riding the roller-coaster in your own minds know what I'm referring to:
- Major League Soccer's television ratings pale in comparison to those of the English and Mexican leagues, both of which are broadcast nationally in the United States in English and Spanish.
- The EPL just banked a three-year, $250 million rights fee from NBC Sports – nearly 20 times the amount that NBC paid MLS for a three-year deal in 2011.
- Though many MLS teams are in robust health, some traditional powers struggle to gain attention and crowds beyond their core fan bases.
- The United States under-17 and under-23 men's teams recently failed to qualify for their respective world championships.
- The U.S. senior men's team is on track to qualify for the World Cup, but its wins have at times been precarious. Its style has not fulfilled Jurgen Klinsmann's promises of more attractive, attacking play.
- Fans of other leagues, and above all the English Premier League, routinely deride MLS on widely-read websites for not living up to their expectations.
That last item is perhaps the one which bears the most resemblance to teenage life. MLS fans are constantly comparing themselves to other leagues' fans. They pounce on every positive or negative judgment rendered by the “popular” crowd.
There is a regular clamor for more spending and more glitz. Fans look around at people who feel good about themselves because their sports teams spend lots of money, and they want that same experience.
(Notice how I referred to spending lots of money, but not to winning. Anyway.)
It doesn't take long for those fans to realize what any teenager quickly comes to learn: you can't spend money that you don't have, and your parents won't bankroll your life forever.
So the quest begins to find ways for improve MLS that aren't expensive. Ideally, the league would get itself on a path that would lead to a big-money TV deal, which would solve a lot of problems.
But that deal isn't coming right now. It might not even come when the next round of rights talks start this summer, at least not to the degree that some might want.
I have an idea, though, that I think might work quickly.
Right now, MLS teams can go out during a transfer window and sign almost any player of almost any nationality in almost any country that they want. As long as the player fits within the salary rules and his paperwork gets taken care of, MLS doesn't often gets in the way. But there is one big exception.
MLS teams can't go out and sign Americans playing in other countries.
Yes, you read that right. Americans that enter MLS from abroad get treated differently from every other class of player that enters the league, from draft picks to academy products or Designated Players.
Instead of signing with teams of their choosing, Americans abroad are allocated to MLS teams through a system of lotteries and drafts. If a specific team wants a specific player, it can't have him without navigating that system to acquire his rights.
MLS created the system in its early years as a measure of establishing competitive balance within the league. That is of the league's hallmarks, and has been since day one.
As MLS vice president of player operations Lino DiCuollo told me, the goal was to prevent teams from loading up on big names and dominating the competition.
"It was determined from the start that we wanted each team to have an equal opportunity to be competitive," DiCuollo said. "One small part of that is the ability of small clubs to also have some of the top domestic talent. If we didn't have a system where young elite domestic players and national team players were assigned, you would find that not many of them would go to smaller markets."
There is nothing inherently wrong with MLS' continued desire for competitive balance. I would argue, as would many others, that it is a good thing for every fan to believe that his or her team has a chance to beat any other team in the league.
And I would argue that there are plenty of fans of soccer teams around the world who wish that they could have the same belief. That includes fans of some of the most popular teams in England, Spain, Germany and Italy.
But MLS has changed in many ways over the years, especially recently. It has grown in quality and quantity, and – to go back to the teenager analogy – it has matured.
Now, as the league comes to terms with its adulthood, it's time for MLS to grow up a little more.
It's time to scrap the allocation and lottery systems for Americans coming to MLS from other leagues. It's time to treat those players like every other player who comes here from abroad.
It wouldn't be difficult to achieve. It wouldn't even have to wait until the current collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2014 season. It would simply require a few small changes to MLS' Roster Rules by the league's Competition Committee and Board of Governors, and those changes could be made very soon.
I will get into the specific changes that I'd like to see later in this post. First, here's an explanation of how the system works currently.
Americans who turn professional and go abroad right away, and do not reach for the senior U.S. national team, are subject to a weighted lottery when they come to MLS. This is how players such as San Jose's Marcus Tracy and Toronto's Gale Agbossoumonde entered the league:
Some players shall be assigned to MLS teams via the weighted Lottery process. Any team assigned a player through the lottery in any particular season shall not be assigned another lottery player that season unless and until all teams have received a lottery player or have agreed to waive their option to participate in a Lottery.
The players made available through lotteries include:
(i) Generation adidas players signed after the MLS SuperDraft;
(ii) Draft eligible players to whom an MLS contract was offered but who failed to sign with the League prior to the Draft.
The weighted lottery takes into consideration each team's performance over its last 34 regular season games and the most recent postseason.
The team with the worst record over its last 34 regular season games (dating back to previous season if necessary and taking playoff performance into account) will have the greatest probability of winning the lottery.
Teams are not required to participate in a lottery. Players are assigned via the lottery system in order to prevent a player from potentially influencing his destination club with a strategic holdout.
Once the club uses its allocation ranking to acquire a player, it drops to the bottom of the list. A ranking can be traded, provided that part of the compensation received in return is the other club's ranking.
At all times, each club is assigned one ranking. The rankings reset at the end of each MLS League season.
For senior national team players coming into MLS from abroad, one of two things may happen. If that player turned down a contract offer from his MLS team before leaving, that team has the right of first refusal to him upon his return. I will get more into that later.
In other circumstances, the player is assigned based on an allocation system. MLS teams are ranked by last season's record, and the worst team gets the first shot at signing that player:
The allocation ranking is the mechanism used to determine which MLS club has first priority to acquire a U.S. National Team player who signs with MLS after playing abroad, or a former MLS player who returns to the League after having gone to a club abroad for a transfer fee.
The allocation rankings may also be used in the event two or more clubs file a request for the same player on the same day when the discovery period opens in December. The allocations will be ranked in reverse order of finish for the 2012 season, taking playoff performance into account.
Teams can trade up the allocation order to get a better shot at that player if they want. This has happened many times over the years.
But we also know of plenty of instances when it has not happened.
I'm going to focus on three players in particular: Hérculez Gómez, Carlos Bocanegra and Robbie Rogers. All are current or former U.S. national team players with past MLS experience who have tried to return to the league in recent times, but have not signed deals.
In all three cases, those players would have been assigned to a team of MLS' choosing instead of their own.
Let's start with Gómez. He has been in the news quite a bit lately, and for good reason. The Las Vegas native has flourished with his club, Mexico's Santos Laguna, and with the national team.
Despite his success at Santos, Gómez has made no secret of wanting to return to the United States:
(The link I refer to in that tweet is here.)
A few days later, Gómez jumped in on a Twitter Q&A session with MLS commissioner Don Garber. The resulting back-and-forth got everyone's attention:
Gómez has a reputation for being a bit of a jester on Twitter. It's part of why he has become one of the most popular Americans abroad. But Gómez's desire to return to MLS is real, and the desire by teams in MLS to sign him is real.
Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl reported recently that the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC are interested in acquiring Gómez. But since the Las Vegas native left MLS in 2009, only one team in the league has been able to sign him: Sporting Kansas City.
When Gómez left Kansas City four years ago, the then-Wizards made him a contract offer. Gómez declined it. Ever since then, Kansas City has held the right of first refusal to sign Gómez if he returns to MLS. Any MLS team wishing to sign Gómez must trade with Kansas City to win his services.
As the Roster Rules state:
Right of first refusal grants one MLS club the first opportunity to add a player to its roster in the event that the player signs with MLS. Holding a right of first refusal applies only within MLS and does not indicate holding of the player's International Transfer Certificate.
This means Kansas City can ransom Gómez's future – and there is no provision in the roster rules for an expiration of that right. So it's possible that Kansas City could hold Gómez's right of first refusal forever.
To further complicate matters, MLS could sign Gómez whether Kansas City wants him or not. Because MLS owns all player contracts in the league, if another team wants the player, the league will sign him first and then figure out where he goes.
"The team [that holds right of first refusal] cannot control our signing the player," DiCuollo told me. "The league will sign him or not sign him whether we think the deal makes sense or not. We will retain the discretion, and if we do assign them, the team can say we'd like him assigned to our team."
That struck me as a bit odd. Why would MLS sign a player to a contract if it wasn't sure that a team wanted him?
DiCuollo clarified the point.
"We're not going to sign him if there's not interest in him," DiCuollo said. He added that if the team with of first refusal declines to exercise that right, the player would be processed into the league in one of two ways: by allocation ranking if he's in the national team pool, and by waiver draft if not.
The two mechanisms are similar, since worse teams get better treatment. The difference, as I understand the rules, is that it's easier for a team to trade up in the allocation ranking than it is to trade up in the waiver draft ranking.
This much is certain: if Kansas City had sold Gómez abroad, the team would no longer have right of first refusal:
Allocation money is a resource available to clubs in addition to their respective salary budgets. A club may receive allocation money for:
(2) the transfer of a player to a club outside of MLS for value;
PLAYER TRANSFERRED OUTSIDE MLS: If a team receives allocation money as a result of a player's transfer, the team does not retain a right of first refusal.
Had that happened, Gómez would still be subject to the allocation process upon a return to MLS due to his status as a U.S. national team regular.
You may look at all of this and conclude that it's much more complicated than it should be. I agree.
Now for Bocanegra. The longtime U.S. national team defender and captain rose to prominence in MLS with the Chicago Fire. In 2004, he left for Fulham on a free transfer. That meant there would be no right of first refusal, but there were other problems.
Bocanegra has enjoyed much success in Europe with a number of clubs. But he ran into trouble while with Scottish giant Rangers. The Glasgow club was relegated to Scotland's fourth tier last year due to financial issues.
The California native looked seriously at a move back to MLS. He had talks with Vancouver and Toronto – and from what I've heard, with two other teams as well. But he would have had to go through the allocation process to return to the United States.
Bocanegra never made it back here. Instead, Rangers sent him to Spanish club Racing Santander on a season-long loan. He hasn't played much since then, and his U.S. national team future has come into question as a result.
Had Bocanegra returned to MLS, he would surely have kept up his form - and he would surely have been a star.
It turned out that there were a lot of reasons why Bocanegra didn't return to MLS, Among them were significant legal issues around Rangers' player contracts when the team was relegated.
But I've been told that the allocation process was a sticking point. Yes, it would have worked out in the end, because Vancouver had the top spot in the ranking at the time. But if that barrier didn't exist, it would have been easier for Bocanegra to come back to MLS.
We can only wonder what his status with the national team would be if he had made the move.
Finally, let's turn to Rogers. The 25-year-old midfielder made international headlines back in February when he retired from soccer and came out as gay.
A few days earlier, Rogers was in the news for a different reason. Rumors were going around that the then-Leeds United midfielder was thinking about coming back to MLS. Columbus, his former team, held the right of first refusal after Rogers left the Crew to move to England after the 2011 season.
On February 6, Columbus traded the right of first refusal on Rogers to Chicago. That prompted this response from Rogers on Twitter:
Of course, nine days later, that remark was forgotten. But it has become consequential again.
Rogers told ABC News recently that he's considering a return to playing, and that he wants to play again – and in the United States specifically. Earlier this week, Rogers spent time training with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The word is going around that L.A. and the Seattle Sounders would like to sign him.
But right now, he can only play for one team: Chicago.
Could that stop Rogers from coming to MLS?
Not necessarily, of course. I've heard from many people that if all parties involved want the deal to happen, it will happen.
But the Fire could theoretically scuttle it all if they aren't satisfied.
Which means that as with Kansas City and Gómez, Chicago can ransom Rogers' future.
Is that likely to happen? Of course not. But you get the point.
There are hundreds of thousands of fans across Major League Soccer who are ready to celebrate having their league be the home of the first openly gay athlete who is actively playing a top-level professional sport.
Indeed, I know enough people at MLS headquarters to be almost certain that there would be unanimous support in the league's front office to welcome Rogers back.
But that welcome shouldn't come with strings attached. Right now, MLS headquarters would be picking the team that Rogers plays for.
That isn't fair.
Yes, there's a social aspect to this case. But the spotlight on Rogers is big enough that he could end up being the catalyst for the change that MLS needs.
Gómez, Bocanegra and Rogers can pick the team they play for in almost any other country in the world, but they can't do so in their own.
It's time to fix that.
It's time for MLS to get out of its own way, and let Americans playing abroad have a fair means to come home.
So far, I've talked about a lot of theory. Now for the practice.
In terms of what actual rules need to change, what I'd like to see is for MLS to classify Americans playing abroad as Discovery Signings. That's how the league's teams bring in all of their other foreign players.
A team that wants to sign an American playing abroad would add that player to its list as it would any player of any other nationality.
Here are the official rules on how Discovery Signings work:
Clubs may make discovery claims on players not yet under MLS contract who are not subject to the allocation ranking or lottery mechanisms.
Each club has the opportunity to make six discovery signings per season (expansion teams may make 10 discovery signings in their inaugural season). A club may have up to 10 discovery claims on unsigned players at any time and may remove or add players at any time.
The last day for discovery player signings is September 13, 2013 - coinciding with the roster freeze date and trade deadline.
The six discovery signings can be used to fill senior roster spots only. If multiple clubs claim the same player using a discovery, the club that filed the claim first will have first rights to the player. Discovery claims expire following each season.
If the League and player are unable to reach an agreement during the season, the club that first filed the discovery retains the right of first refusal in the event the player is later signed by the League.
Note: To protect interests of MLS clubs in scouting and negotiations with prospective players, the League office will not publicize the names of players on club discovery lists, nor specify if a discovery claim has been filed on a particular player.
That last paragraph can be translated as follows: the Discovery Signing system exists so that MLS teams don't get in a bidding war with each other. As MLS owns all contracts in the league, its interest is understandable.
We can debate the merits of the single-entity structure some other day. For now, let's go from the presumption that it will remain in place. Indeed, this change should fit just fine within the league's existing business model.
Even though Discovery Signing lists aren't entirely transparent, they would give players more freedom of movement than the allocation and lottery systems.
Now, you might ask what would happen if a team makes a Discovery claim years before an American abroad decides to move back to MLS, and just sits on it for a while. Perhaps Team A thinks said player might want to end up with a different MLS team, and Team A wants to stake a claim first.
There are multiple checks on that process. The first is that with a fixed number of Discovery slots per year available to a club, there's substantive value in each one. So for a team to spend one slot on one player for multiple years is a consequential investment.
The second is the fact that Discovery claims expire at the end of each season. If two teams file discovery claims at the same time for a player, the team with the worse record gets first in line. So if one team wants a player that badly, it might have to underperform to get in front of another team that wants the player.
The third check could be the salary cap. If a player wants to go to a team that is up against the cap, he would know that, and would choose a different team. That system of player movement exists in other American sports that have salary caps, such as football and basketball.
If the two sides can't agree on a salary figure, that also happens all the time. I've heard rumors about at least one U.S. national team player who thinks pretty highly of his potential salary in MLS, but the teams that want to sign him don't quite agree.
And I don't think the salary cap would have to be raised to accommodate what I'm proposing. I'm not saying the salary cap shouldn't be raised, or by what amount. I'm just saying that the rule change I'm calling for would not, in and of itself, require a change in the cap.
The potential reward for MLS doing this is considerable. Not only would it become easier for prominent Americans to come here, but it would also make the league more appealing to lesser-known American players around the world.
I'm not going to name examples, but I'll say this much. Go look at Yanks-Abroad.com's detailed register of Americans playing around the world. Think about the players on there who've either left MLS or never joined MLS in the first place solely because they wanted to make more money elsewhere.
So off they went... and now they aren't playing as much as they had hoped. And maybe some of those players have seen their national team prospects diminish as a result. Yes, they might make less money in MLS, but if they want regular playing time - and, just maybe, a more comfortable life off the field - wouldn't it make sense for them to come home?
And wouldn't it make sense for MLS to make that move easier, not harder?
If those players come to MLS, it will give the league another boost that it sorely needs: better depth in its squads.
With one rule change, MLS could improve its star power and its middle class while preserving the single-entity structure and salary cap.
I'd say that's a change worth making.
There are a few flaws in the argument that I've made, and they deserves to be addressed.
What if a team succeeds in effectively sitting on a player's discovery rights by claiming him every year? That could happen. I still think the system would be cleaner and more appealing to Americans abroad in such a form, though. There's still an improvement on the principle of treating all players equally.
Say a player leaves MLS or turns down MLS to go abroad, then decides after a short amount of time that he isn't happy. So he wants to come back to the U.S.
In particular, say the player leaves MLS for a short time and then comes back solely in order to get out of a cheap contract in MLS.
You could easily argue that MLS team that had rights to said player, whether through a contract or a draft pick, shouldn't lose the right of first refusal in that situation.
I can go with that. Let's say, then, that there should be a time limit on right of first refusal – one year, or at most two years.
Credit for that idea goes to ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, who played for a long time in MLS and went through some of this as a player. He suggested a two-year window. I'd with a shorter time span, 12 to 18 months.
You can read more of Twellman's thoughts at the bottom of this post.
(It's noteworthy that if you go with a two-year window, Robbie Rogers' rights would not be free at this point. That makes for a fair counter-argument to Rogers deserving to pick the club he comes to.)
The other flaw in my argument is one that DiCuollo referred to earlier. Suppose players would only want to go to the big clubs in MLS: New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and so forth.
I'm not convinced that will happen. I think there are plenty of players who'd want to go to their hometown clubs, whether that's Chicago or Philadelphia or even New England. And if that team is up against the salary cap, then the player would have latitude to pick another team.
Some of MLS' best foreign imports play in two of the league's smallest markets: Federico Higuaín in Columbus and Javier Morales in Salt Lake City. I'd like to think that with smart management, those clubs can convince Americans to come to them too.
I know that what I'm calling for, and the rhetoric that I've used here, may ruffle some feathers at MLS headquarters.
I also know, based on what DiCuollo told me, that the subject definitely has the league's attention.
"Like a lot of our rules, we evaluate them periodically with the Competition Committee," DiCuollo told me. "The rule is under review right now, but nothing has been determined. There are time-based [ideas], there are consideration-based ones, there are various ideas being reviewed."
MLS is aware of the perception that is out there. There may be disagreement as to what the reality is, but players like Gómez and Rogers have got a lot of fans talking. DiCuollo acknowledged that the league's roster rules "sometimes impact these types of signings."
"But with a lot of the players - whether it's Freddy Adu or Eddie Johnson coming back, whether it's our ability to keep Brek Shea here or sign the next Brek Shea - I think we've done a fairly good job of that," he said. "We are continuing to evaluate the rules so that they don't impact these types of important players coming back into the league... We do want the league to be the league of choice for every American."
Still, DiCuollo said, the league has reason to be cautious.
"We are in a global marketplace," he concluded. With or without our structure, there will be challenges."
Over the last few weeks, I've talked to many current and former U.S. national team players, the players' union, and management-side sources at MLS and teams.
There's a lot of support for what I've proposed. I've also heard from multiple sources that there has already been movement towards changing the rules to help fix problems I've discussed here.
I offered anonymity to everyone I talked to so that they would feel free to say whatever they wanted. Some people were willing to speak on the record, and others were not. That's fine.
Below you'll find words from those who spoke on the record. When you're done reading them, I want you to have your say in the comments.
Richard Motzkin, a player agent who represents many top Americans in MLS and abroad:
I understand the rules that govern how players are classified when they enter MLS, particularly with regard to returning U.S. national team players. Nevertheless, for former MLS players, I believe this rule is unfair.
When a player leaves MLS after playing out a multi-year contract and signs overseas, this de facto represents that the player was undercompensated during his time in the League. To me, it seems both unreasonable and illogical to further reward this club with refusal rights to the returning player after they previously had the benefit of this player for years at below-market wages.
Ted Philipakos, a player agent and professor of sports management at New York University:
You can understand the rationale behind the rules that are currently in place. Obviously competitive balance has been of critical importance to Major League Soccer, so you can rationalize any mechanism designed to support that balance.
Having said that, you never want to go too far and ultimately create an obstacle to the arrival of important players. And you could argue we see that now in certain cases. Plus I think there is a belief among all stakeholders that the league is going to facilitate important signings one way or another anyway. In that context, it might be reasonable to have the rules tweaked.
Bob Foose, executive director of the Major League Soccer Players Union:
[You heard from the league office earlier. As roster rules are a labor issue, it's fair to hear from the players' union too.]
The proposed change could be done right now without being collectively bargained. I would also say it is a topic that is very likely to be collectively bargained in the next agreement.
We don't disagree with the proposed change, but we don't think it goes far enough. We think players should be free to choose where they're going to play, both from outside the league and inside the league.
Where we are now as a league, we need a more efficient market where we're focusing much more on rewarding those who are actually performing well in our league and re-allocating resources away from unproven talent, which is where too many resources have been spent.
In addition to that I would add that – because it goes hand-in-hand – I think we need to not just allow but encourage our teams to compete with each other. That's necessary if we're going to take the next step that we need to take.
ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, who played in MLS from 2002 to 2010:
I just don't think here should be a difference between Robbie Keane coming here and Tim Howard or Carlos Bocanegra or Clint Dempsey. I think we're past that stage. Those players should have the same options that Europeans do when they come over.
I can understand the argument maybe five, six years ago that there would have been only two clubs that players wanted to go to. I don't think that's the case anymore. I don't think the American players that want to come back to MLS only want to go to a few clubs. So I don't think it's going to be unbalanced, and now the time is right.
If Hérculez Gómez went to Mexico for 12 to 14 months, then said he wanted to come back, I don't know if I have a problem with Kansas City having his rights. If Omar González goes to Europe and hates it and comes back within a year, then Los Angeles can have right of first refusal.
When I came to MLS, I had to go into a draft. I was going to be signed as a Discovery player in 2002 by the Los Angeles Galaxy, and the league told Sigi Schmid he couldn't use a discovery slot on me because I didn't sign a Project-40 contract.
Because I didn't play a first team game in Germany I had to go through the SuperDraft. The irony of it was that Los Angeles didn't use the discovery on me, they used it on Carlos Ruiz. They might not have had Carlos Ruiz if the discovery tag worked on me.
ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, who played in MLS from 1996 to 2003 and later served as general manager in New York and Los Angeles:
This is one of those things where what is good for the individual may not necessarily be good for the whole.
I can completely empathize with the frustration that players sometimes feel where they're not able to dictate where they go. But the rules and regulations, as much as we rail against them - if we take a step back, I believe that they are one of the reasons why we are still in existence.
it doesn't mean that they aren't frustrating. It doesn't mean they aren't confusing. But I do believe there is a method to the madness.
I'm sure there is talent that MLS has lost out on because of the regulations in existence. While the initial reaction is to throw your arms up, the responsibility of the league and ownership is not necessarily for the short term.
Now, if it's a situation where every year because of this MLS is losing out on talent that could make teams and the league better, then that's definitely something that needs to be addressed. I don't necessarily think we're there yet though.
I think it ultimately comes down to money. I don't think we have players sitting out in the far reaches of the world because they can't play in their preferred city in MLS. I think that's misleading to think that exists.
Is it a barrier? Yeah, but it's a barrier by design.
There's this inflation that happens in terms of perception and reality when players step off the plane in another country. All of a sudden their value and their ability seems to creep upward.
[But] there are guys with cachet and name recognition. I could make an argument for many individuals. There are guys that could force hands. and maybe bring the type of leverage that we were talking about.