Sporting Kansas City fans (and lots of other MLS fans) are well into their 2019-2020 offseason and there has been minimal action. It’s all bound to pick-up soon with some deadlines rapidly approaching.
However, one thing that is a little further off is the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations between Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Association. The mother ship over at SB Nation had a good write-up on what the players want from the new CBA and it got me thinking of what would make MLS better.
Overall, simplicity feels like the way to go. MLS roster rules are really complicated and every time we at The Blue Testament sit down to write something, we essentially need a law degree to decipher what everything means. Let’s get started.
Raise the Cap, Remove TAM/GAM & Overall Simplify Things
For the 2019 season, MLS has a “salary budget” of $4.24 million. Despite that, the lowest spending team in the league, the Vancouver Whitecaps, spent $8,152,129.65 on salaries in 2019.
If you follow MLS at all, you may know that’s due to a complicated list of roster mechanisms like General Allocation Money (GAM), Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) and rules where some salaries count against the “budget” (basically the first 20 roster spots) and others don’t (Homegrowns and roster spots 21-30).
There are so many problems with these mechanisms.
First, they make it needlessly difficult to understand how money is being spent. Second, something like TAM has the potential to punish domestic and existing MLS players and encourages teams to bring in talent from abroad (though clubs can re-sign existing players to TAM deals).
Often teams overpay for that new talent because for a player to be on a TAM contract, they have to be over the max budget charge ($530,000 in 2019). Also, the league has been hesitant to allow teams to re-sign their players with TAM and they are almost encouraging them to overspend on bringing in new players as MLS ultimately gets final say if a contract goes through.
One interesting side effect of this is that trades often include TAM/GAM moving around. We don’t want to lose interesting trades, but let teams just trade cash in addition to international roster spots, draft picks, Homegrown rights, Discovery rights and so on.
Make the Salary Cap/Budget $15 Million
All but three teams (Toronto FC, the LA Galaxy and the Chicago Fire) are under $15 million in salary expenditures in 2019 (don’t worry, we’ll still sneak them in below with an altered DP rule). TAM and GAM could be eliminated because there is no need to “buy down” players under the budget.
Teams would be given the freedom to spend how they want to. Theoretically, if the roster limit remained at 30 (which, should it?), each player on the team could make $500,000. That would be a pretty strong team one would think. And inevitably there will be young guys making way less which would enable teams to spend more on premier players.
Frankly, $15 million may be too high for some teams. Maybe the number is $12 million. MLS and the players association can fight it out. Whatever the number is, it should be significantly higher than it is now.
Keep, but Tweak, the Designated Player (DP) Rule
Currently, teams can sign three DPs that only count as $530,000 (in 2019) against the salary budget but can be paid essentially an infinite amount of money. Personally, I think that’s good for the league. The more Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s, Wayne Rooney’s, David Villa’s, etc. that the league can attract, the better it is for the league.
However, I propose two changes. First, up the budget charge to $1.5 million. Right now, that is the number that is the max a player can make an be bought down with TAM. There are only 32 players in the league (with 24 current teams) that make above $1.5 million.
Only Toronto, the Galaxy and the Fire have the current max of three over that number. Under this proposed change, that would eat up $4.5 million of their budget and they’d still have 11.5 million to spread across their remaining players. In a 30 player team that’s a bit under $426,000 per player. You can still build a killer squad that way.
The second proposed change is to add a fourth DP. If a team added a fourth DP under the new $1.5 million threshold, that’s $6 million of the $15 million budget. That leaves $9 million across 27 players or $333,333 per remaining player.
This could potentially widen the gap between the haves and have nots. But it’ll probably be much easier to win games with a roster loaded with 8-10 guys making around $1 million than unbalance things and go DP heavy. It will encourage a diversity of approaches.
Depending on how MLS wants to restrict spending, they could still add in transfer fees prorated across the years on the contract for whoever they signed so a player like Ezequiel Barco or Pity Martinez still hits this threshold but a player like Yohan Croizet would no longer be a DP.
Up the Roster Size to 35 Players
Currently MLS teams can sign 30 players. Two of those players (29 and 30) have to be Homegrowns. I’m fine with that, but let’s grow the rosters. Teams like Sporting Kansas City could have used more players this year as they went through a devastating injury spell that at one point left them with just six healthy players. They had to cancel practice!
35 may feel high, but most teams have a USL Championship or USL League One team to loan players to. So those who aren’t playing for the first team can simply be loaned down. Those teams that don’t have a B-team probably should get one or simply not use the newfound roster space. Alternatively, they can continue to loan to their lower league affiliates or to multiple lower-league teams.
If we re-do the math from above around DPs it breaks down like this. If you have three DPs, the remaining $11.5 million would be $359,375 per player. If you have four DPs, the remaining $9.5 million would be $306,451 per player. There is plenty of money to fill an even larger roster.
Remove Roster Designations
Currently MLS have three roster designations: Senior Roster (spots 1-20), Supplemental Roster (21-24) and Reserve Roster (25-30). It seems the main reason for this is that only spots 1-20 (or as few as 1-18) count against the salary budget. With the proposal above to raise the budget significantly, there is no need for this. It’s another way things are complicated needlessly (not to mention the fact there are tons of rules around Homegrown, subsidies, etc. that could go away).
One designation I would keep is not counting Homegrown players against the budget. It encourages teams to sign their youth products. Also, there would probably need to be a minimum roster size that teams had to comply with to avoid them just being cheap.
Increase International Roster Spots
There is definitely a logical reason to limit international players. The United States needs to develop domestic players for their international competitions. It’s commonplace in leagues around the world.
Currently teams can have eight internationals on their roster (not counting players on green cards who count as domestic). Bump the number to 10. With the roster growing by five spots above, that’s still three more domestic players and only two more internationals. These slots can also remain one of the assets that can be traded.
Open up Free Agency
Lots of the above rules stand to benefit the players but one of the things they probably want most is a robust expansion of free agency. Currently to be a free agent players have to be at least 28-years-old and have eight years of MLS experience. Nearly everyone who has met that threshold so far are beyond their prime and are only likely to be roleplayers at best. Sporting KC have notably had a few disastrous signings like Justin Mapp (43 minutes) and Rodney Wallace (27 minutes).
If you look at the leagues with arguable the most successful free agent setups, the NFL and the NBA, players become free agents somewhere between three and five years into the league. A simple solution is probably in the four or five year range for players out of contract or for players who have had their options declined. I’d recommend four years, but I could see ownership pushing for six or seven. Five years would be a victory for players and would make players in their prime land in free agency if teams can’t reach deals with them.
Also, if the league wants to protect clubs, they could potentially put extra protections in for Homegrown players to ensure clubs don’t lose players without compensation.
Remove Club Rights into Perpetuity
Right now, MLS clubs somehow own the rights of players that they have declined options on, not signed after they drafted them or who have left the team to go overseas. Doing away with all of that feels like the right thing to do. At the bare minimum, if you have declined an option or drafted and not signed a player, that player should be free to sign with anyone. When player leave abroad, I’m open to clubs keeping their rights.
All that said, this is something if I’m the players I’d concede on to get some of the items above.
Get Rid of All the Weird Drafts
If you’ve looked at the offseason calendar you’ll notice that MLS isn’t calling all these weird offseason drafts by the name of “draft” anymore. That said, they are unchanged. Let’s get rid of the Waiver Draft, Re-Entry Draft Stage 1 and Re-Entry Draft Stage 2. There is also a case to be made the SuperDraft can go away but that may be a bridge too far.
At the minimum, drop the first three, which ties right into the above issue where the club forever hold rights, even on players they release or don’t pick up options on. If you don’t want a player, they should be able to go where they are wanted and avoid subjecting themselves to being “drafted.”
While we are at it, eliminate the Expansion Draft. There are five MLS teams coming in over the next three seasons (at a minimum) and there is no reason to let them steal players off existing rosters. If it happened only once in a while that would be one thing, but new teams come in every year.
Removing the Expansion Draft may be harder with the elimination of all the Garber Bucks though since simply giving them more funny money is an easy replacement for expansion draft picks. Potentially you could give teams extra international spots, draft picks or some other sort of boost to aid them in building a roster.
Raise the Minimum Salary
This is something that will assuredly happen. Every year the number goes further and further up. Remember when players made a little as $10,000? Right now, depending on what portion of the roster you are on, the minimum salary is different. It’s $70,250 in 2019 for most players and $56,250 for the final six roster slots.
If you look at the average household income in the US it’s somewhere in the low to mid 60’s. If you want to encourage players to choose soccer over going out and getting a 9 to 5, you should probably pay them more than that. A good starting point is probably around the senior roster minimum. So start it at $75,000 at the bare minimum and give it an annual bump up.