By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (July 11, 2012) US Soccer Players – As we wait for the fun and games of the summer transfer market 2012 edition, most of the talk in Major League Soccer is about business as usual. That means figuring out if a foreign club will pay the League enough to transfer a player. Nothing new to see here in big picture terms, even if 2011 brought us an MLS team spending considerable money to bring a player in.
That's not MLS business as usual. This is a League with an established reputation as a selling club with 19 subsidiaries, not one that buys. The lopsided treatment of the transfer system speaks to the kind of fiscal austerity that's been part of the MLS single-entity system from the beginning. This is a league setup around cost control, specifically making sure they aren't competitively spending on players.
How does that work in practice? No free agency within the league means player salaries are controlled. There's no internal market for talent with clubs competing against each other for players. Beyond MLS, it means that multiple MLS clubs won't directly bid for a player. The League itself handles that, presented a united negotiating front and acting like yet another club. Well, yet another club with a bizarre twist. Sign with MLS and there's a chance that the process won't be straightforward. Individual choice is extremely limited by design, for both the club and the player. The exception is that willingness to spend money.
Last year, Robbie Keane joined the Los Angeles Galaxy after the Galaxy agreed to pay Tottenham £3.5 million dollars. The amount is a rarity in MLS and so is the basic concept of paying a transfer fee. No, this wasn't the first time a club had paid to sign a player. There are other examples, but none of them rises to the level of what the Galaxy chose to do with their money. Normally, players still under contract enter MLS after negotiating their own exit from their current club. MLS is quite fond of the free transfer. They're also fond of selling players, setting up a one-sided approach to the transfer system as a whole. You can pay us, but we won't pay you.
A charitable term for this situation is unique. Players and their representatives in Europe normally negotiate personal terms before agreeing to a deal between clubs. That's not possible when you have no guarantee that a player will end up with a specific club. The workaround is an MLS club getting the League to agree to pay a fee, but the rarity of that scenario remains.
Judging by their player acquisitions, most teams remain fine with the allocation processes and what amounts to a weighted lottery system. The League makes the deal on behalf of MLS, the player goes through one of several potential allocation scenarios, and in theory everyone is satisfied.
Of course, this is MLS and the League is nothing if not adept at mixing systems when it suits them. Enter an equally unique concept for a professional soccer league, the discovery claim. I'll let the League explain this one courtesy of the 2012 MLS Roster Rules: "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."
Not for the first time, we've seen a scenario where one MLS club gets the ability to make things difficult for another. The existing allocations for professional players entering MLS work three ways. The first two are well known: US National Team players and any former MLS player the League previously sold. That leaves a lot of foreign players free and clear, right? In theory, but the League's discovery system allows clubs to file claims on players they haven't actually signed. That's the scenario that Montreal found itself in when they had MLS complete a deal for Alessandro Nesta. Montreal got the player, and New York got a payment. Why? A discovery claim.
MLS roster rules carry two caveats. They won't publicize the amount of allocation money any team has and they won't make public the names of players teams have claimed through discovery. Since 'discovery' is a wide open term with no obvious limits, you can have a lot of fun attaching any player you like to one of the 10 discovery claims MLS clubs can have. Why limit it to soccer? You might remember Tim Howard and Lionel Messi getting drafted by the Harlem Globetrotters. Hey, in theory, lots of improbable things could happen. Yet even when a club names a player that another team successfully brings into the League, is this really the silly business a pro sport wants to be in? For that matter, what message does it send?
What MLS has done is pull from two systems that are intended to benefit clubs while limiting the options for players. The world transfer market allows players to be sold rather than traded, and the North American sports model allows for multiple restrictions.
Major League Soccer's Frankenstein version is designed to limit financial risk by never defining the worth of any individual player as determined by MLS clubs in an open market. That's as true for the players already in this League as the ones entering it. The one exception is a team willing to spend real money on a transfer. Even with this League's love of regulations, that seems to be the only way to subvert the system. Given the strong message built into MLS about constraining costs, is it any wonder that so few clubs even consider paying a fee for a player?
Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves. Please, tell me all about it.
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