Intentionally Vague: The MLS Rule Book
With MLS embroiled in a constant give and take in regards to it’s rule set, we have a special guest post from one of my favorite football writers, John Nyen. John writes for a variety of sites, but I first learned of his work on Slide Rule Pass, a Portland Timbers-focused site that should appeal to anyone interested in soccer. Be sure to follow John at @JNyen.
If I were to say, “Do you want your team to sign the best players and play the best tactics?” it’s a safe assumption that the answer would undoubtedly be, “YES.”
If I asked Don Garber the same question, the answer would also be, “Yes.”
While there’s a definite resemblance in terms of objectives, there’s definite problems with the ways in which Major League Soccer’s front office attempts to accomplish those goals.
Don Garber has been upfront about this issue with fans. In the 2013 State of the League address he stated, “as an emerging league, there are times where we are figuring out those rules as we go along.”
This is the plain and simple truth of MLS: the league’s primary concern is helping the league expand as a whole. If you overhear a conspiracy theory about MLS and their supposed favoritism, you can disregard that immediately. The league doesn’t prefer specific teams because of any sort of tinpot conspiracy. It works for specific teams because the reality of the soccer landscape in the United States and Canada dictates that the league create ways to place exciting players in locations they prefer and where they’ll also garner the most visibility. If you want to call this a conspiracy to enhance certain teams, you’re missing the point. MLS only cares about enhancing the visibility of the league’s product, and it clearly believes that one way to do this is to heavily market marquee teams. The end result is that places like Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Toronto and to a lesser extent, Portland and Kansas City, receive what appears to be preferential treatment.
This “favoritism” is something that seems at odds with the idea of MLS being a league of parity, but if there’s one thing MLS has emphasized over recent years, it’s that acquiring players with name recognition is better than not acquiring those players at all. If marquee players prefer to play in a specific location, the league will work to place them in that city. You’re not going to see MLS allocate David Villa to play in Columbus; it just simply doesn’t work that way.
Over and over fans hear whispers that the league will “work with” bold teams that have a fan-base (or the potential for an emerging fan-base) and an ownership group willing to spend. In and of itself, this is one of the primary factors that drives many of the decisions that MLS makes. MLS wants to expand on the dynamism of creative ownership and buoyant fan support to create a situation that can be used for publicity and to engage new fans to drive the league forward and allow teams to then acquire greater players in the future.
Of course, in saying this, we ought to talk about the mechanism the league uses to make this happen, or rather, the lack of a mechanism; MLS is a league which lacks transparency and typically offers no explanation as to the rules by which they finalize players transactions.
The simple truth of Major League Soccer is that it is a game of competitive Monopoly played by 22 millionaires. Fans watch the game unfold, unaware that before the game even began, the banker announced that only houses go through allocation and that hotels can be partially purchased by both the bank and the property owner. The banker also eliminated the Go bonus and negotiated to buy “LA 2” from the current property holder so that the banker could sell the property to someone else.
Meanwhile, fans of the league are still operating on a small extrapolation of vague rules that contain contrary statements that conflict with actual player acquisition procedure.
To many observers of the league, this lack of transparency is unsettling. To the league itself, this lack of transparency is vital for the current composition of Major League Soccer. If the league were to publish their current rules in all their detail and mandate that they be followed in perpetuity, the league would lose the very thing (flexibility) that it uses to fix the arcane rules it implemented in the first place.
Make no mistake, this transparency issue with regards to player acquisition is self-created and self-perpetuated by Major League Soccer. It bills itself as a young league, as a growing league and as one that is consistently evolving. However, it seems to be a self-contained evolution where the ideas that are massaged and evolved are those ideas already in place. The league intentionally skews procedures in order to fulfill the needs that it identifies. One of the problems with being a salary cap, single entity league is that the league front office is involved in virtually every step of player acquisitions for every team in the league. The league (in the early days) created mechanisms that would seem to make things “fair” for all the teams so as to not give one team an advantage in acquiring players and to, seemingly, prevent runaway spending that created problems in earlier soccer league iterations within the United States.
The problem, for an observer of the league, is that a person who tracks Major League Soccer simply doesn’t have any understanding of the ways a team can acquire a marquee player. That is, simply, because Major League Soccer will implement a rule, in secret, to help facilitate the acquisition of a player. This isn’t always done in a reactionary way, mind you. Many of the mechanisms that fans learn about during a season are implemented before the season begins, and some are interpreted differently during the course of a season.
All this maneuvering is premised on propelling Major League Soccer’s brand into the public consciousness while attempting to control parity within the league to, theoretically, keep the league competitive for all the teams within it. As such, the method for acquiring talent beyond those players who bolster the lower echelons of the league is one rule compounded on another compounded on another compounded on another. Designated players, allocated players, designated players who are eligible for allocation (or not), discovery claim players, discovery claim players who may be designated players, young designated players, half season designated players, amortized transfer payment designated players below the DP payment threshold, league acquisition players; all of these are a giant foundation of rules implemented by the league front office in an attempt to control the distribution of players within the league while ensuring that teams with the “means” to acquire exciting talent have the ability to do so.
Many fans view these methods as clandestine subterfuge that hurts their own teams, while the league views them as an appropriate reaction to the league’s current needs.
The problem here is that, at times, the league seems to believe that fans need to support the league as a whole, while it appears that the further a fan-base becomes attached to their local team, the less they appear to want the league to be involved in the needs of their own club. Fans support the Chicago Fire, not the structure that allows MLS to sign a new USMNT player for the LA Galaxy, even though it could benefit the Chicago Fire in the long run.
There is, of course, a way the league could fix these problems. They could seriously expand the salary cap and eliminate the byzantine way in which teams acquire players. For example, if a club wants a player, the club signs that player. Of course, by doing so, they will create a league in which the teams with the most financial resources could potentially have the best teams.
Clarifying the rules would eliminate the perception of the league as one based on arcane rules and back room deals, while ushering in an era of major financial risk. A concern which the league seems to argue could hurt many of the unprofitable teams.
Of course, the inverse of financial ruin could happen as well, as opening up the salary cap and loosening the player acquisition restrictions could allow well-run teams (like Kansas City and Real Salt Lake) to import more talent that fits their system while expanding their ability to develop and play their own style of soccer.
Major League Soccer frequently hangs its hat on the peg of parity and seem perpetually afraid of reaching a day where New York City FC could buy the best players, while simultaneously encouraging and facilitating this very thing among the elite teams in MLS by the way they allocate players like David Villa, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones.
This commitment to circular logic and peculiar distribution methods implies that Major League Soccer expects common fans to simply accept that they will not know how their team can acquire a marquee player until it has already happened and the inadvertent interview comments clarify the situation after the fact.
That’s the reality of the league today; it’s a malleable, adjustable league with rules built to expand the profile of the league and help serve those teams that can accomplish that goal. Fans are just along for the ride.
So it behooves an observer of Major League Soccer to listen to this clip of Don Garber at the 2013 State of the League speech before they try to clarify what the league does or does not do, because even the league admits they’re making things up as they go.
True transparency will never come to Major League Soccer while the rules are intentionally left hidden to allow them to be infinitely adjusted to the benefit of the league. The ends justify the means, for now, but not for long.