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Why MLS roster rules are unfair, and how to fix them

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Do current MLS Roster rules favor large market teams? How can MLS tap into the potential of small market owners?

Rule changes to accommodate Giovani Dos Santos' move to the LA Galaxy will only increase the gap between what large and small market teams can invest.
Rule changes to accommodate Giovani Dos Santos' move to the LA Galaxy will only increase the gap between what large and small market teams can invest.
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

News broke yesterday that the LA Galaxy and Mexican National Team star Giovani Dos Santos where in negotiations.  This raised some eyebrows as the only way Dos Santos is coming to Major League Soccer is as a Designated Player and the Galaxy already have Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Keane and that Steven Gerrard guy on their books as DPs.  Under the current MLS roster rules they are maxed out.

Of course, it seems whenever the LA Galaxy are in a bind like this the rules get changed to meet their needs and this is what appears to be happening. What is essentially a fourth Designated Player slot is being created, and as always with MLS this new "core player" has caveats and rules. If I have lost you already don’t fret – you are the majority.

To truly understand how roster composition works you need to understand all the following terms and their meanings:

Allocation Money, Designated Players, Supplemental Roster, Senior Roster, Salary Budget Players, Generation Adidas Players, Home Grown Players, International Players spots, Retention Funds, Buying Down, and now Core Player.

Most of us have no chance.

This is an issue for people reporting on the game, and also for fans who desperately try and struggle to understand what is happening. Just when you think you have it down, the rules evolve again.

The second problem with this is no matter how complex this system is, it is deeply flawed.  It has almost codified rules which allow big markets to spend more, and put up barriers for small market teams to do the same. What?  Stick with me -- this isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

Here is a very ballpark scenario to highlight the issue:

Toronto FC make three huge signings.  Bradley, Giovinco and Altidore between the three of them cost MLS/MLSE upwards of $15m a year.   These players are the three Designated Players Toronto are allowed.  The remainder of their squad (and a portion of the three DP’s) wages are covered by the standard salary cap.  Their total spend is a theoretical $19m a year.

Sporting Kansas City have Matt Besler, and Graham Zusi as Designated players.  These two have a combined annual salary of $1.2m a year.  Not even 10% of the trio in Toronto.   Sporting could choose to add a third DP – Dom Dwyer, or Kristen Nemeth down the road (again this is a scenario ….. not a prediction) and they would be maxed out on these special players and not have even broken $2.5m a year.  Sporting's maximum total spending is roughly $6.5m.

Sporting Kansas City, Salt Lake, Dallas, basically all the teams outside of a handful of East and West Coast cities are not able to sign huge name stars. In theory they can but David Beckham would never have moved to Columbus, Ohio.  The likes of Pirlo want to live in cities like New York or LA, no amount of money will lure him Utah. Lampard isn’t moving to Portland anytime soon.

These smaller market teams often have some serious financial muscle however, Sporting are owned by Billionaires, but they are prevented from investing the same money LA or the Red Bulls might spend on an aging David Villa on multiple players.

Simply put: In a league that supposedly values economic common sense there are barriers in place that prevent teams from cultivating and retaining many players at a fraction of the cost of one Frank Lampard or Kaka.  When it comes to extra discretionary spending from owners it still is geared towards individual players rather than the squad.

For small market teams the actual reality is that this:  The Designated Player system has created a glass ceiling that prevents investment.  The fourth DP slot will actually make this worse, increasing the potential for the few biggest teams to outpace spending over the majority of teams even further.

So here is what I want to do (with my absolute lack of power):

The standard salary cap is roughly $4m a year (roughly… let’s not get lost in the details).  I’d like teams to be able to spend that on players as they see fit so long as they have the 28 players at the end of the spending that they need to fill a roster. My only stipulation is that there is a minimum wage. Unlimited Homegrown players. Fine but lets leave it there.

If teams find that there are players they want to add (or retain) that would force them to spend over the cap they can do so, they pay for it themselves just as they do with Designated Players except there are no more Designated Players. Teams simply have an upper Ceiling on this Discretionary Spending of $16m a year – roughly what Toronto, New York City, and LA are spending now.

That is it!

My entire master plan.  It is so simple that right now you are feeling dubious, but think about it ...

It would allow New York City FC to pay 3-4 fading star players huge money and fill the rest of their roster with staple average MLS guys. Nothing changes there. This is literally how the Toronto FC function. The LA Galaxy do a better job of it than almost anybody else but this is their basic blue print.  Seattle are in here as well as the Red Bulls.

It would allow a smaller market outfits like, Dallas, Portland, Columbus or Kansas City to invest in a half dozen or younger $500k-$1m players if they felt they wanted to enhancing their squad by spreading resources throughout it. A completely different philosophy for completely different markets, and one that actually fits.

It frees the Billionaire owners of smaller market teams to open their wallets just as much as MLSE or AEG might, with the benefit of stronger squads, and ultimately… greater potential for actual parity.

My manifesto for change, shouted into the wind.  What do you think?

Of course the bigger question might be why has the system evolved to benefit just a few markets? Moreover… is it by design? It is a thought process that takes you to a dark place, but happily I’m fresh out of Tinfoil today, so I’m going to keep it simple and say it’s all about suppression of wages for people MLS don’t put on posters, and not suggest too hard that maybe TV deals don’t happen if us flyover folk win the title year on year.