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The Math of a Ronaldo to Sporting KC (or any other DP Signing)

MLS roster rules are complicated. Let’s talk a little about how this would work for Ronaldo (who isn’t coming) or anyone else Sporting Kansas City want to bring.

Korea Republic v Portugal: Group H - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

As you’ve undoubtedly heard, Sporting Kansas City were reportedly “very close” to bringing football legend Cristiano Ronaldo to Major League Soccer. We’ve covered it in depth:

One thing we haven’t covered though, is how could Sporting KC actually sign Ronaldo financially? No, not the math of his stupidly high deal, reportedly worth up to €200 million (£177m/$212m), but how Ronaldo or any other high-priced player actually fit into the MLS budget of Sporting KC.

High Level Rule Overview

MLS doesn’t have a hard cap, but instead a salary budget. Let’s keep this as brief as possible.

Teams are allowed to sign three players that only count for the salary maximum ($651,250 in 2023) against the budget even though they can have an unlimited salary or acquisition fee. These are Designated Players (DP). Then there are all kinds of Garber Bucks Allocation Monies (Targeted, General) to buy down salaries and keep them ‘in budget.’

In MLS, because of all these unique roster rules, it’s never straight forward. While teams can have up to three DPs, sometimes teams, like SKC, will choose not to have three true DPs to allow them to sign other types of players.

MLS has a roster mechanism called the U-22 Player Initiative (#YoungMoney) that allows teams to sign one to three players under the age of 22 for an unlimited transfer fee (like a DP above) but with a limited salary (no more than the aforementioned budget max). You get one U-22 signing if you have three true DPs and up to three if you have two or less true DPs. A true DP is a player making over the Targeted Allocation Money maximum ($1,651,250 in 2023).

What is Sporting KC’s Budget Situation?

Now that we knocked out a quick primer on the rules, let’s talk about Sporting KC’s situation. They have two true Designated Players. Almost certainly those are Johnny Russell and Alan Pulido, who made $2 million or more each last year.

They also have a third Designated Player, Gadi Kinda, who appears to be the player who can be bought down to not count as a DP this year, thus isn’t a true DP (it’s complicated, but we explain it here if you are interested).

Because of that, they have three U-22 players on their roster: Logan Ndenbe, Robert Voloder and Marinos Tzionis. And they are still in a position to sign a new, third Designated Player.

However, this is where the problem comes in (shout out to The Blue Testament community member jdkus11 for initially pointing it out). If Sporting KC were to sign Ronaldo, or anyone else who either (a) had a large transfer fee or (b) a large annual salary, they would then meet the definition of a true Designated Player. And then Sporting would be forced to deal with the fact that they now have too many U-22 players (they’d only be allowed one in this scenario).

The Complications of the Third DP

As outlined above, if someone meets the true DP status, SKC would have to make a move (or series of moves) to make it all work. Let’s run through the options.

Get Rid of Pulido or Russell

If they signed another DP, Sporting KC could trade, transfer or buy out one of their other DPs to remain in compliance. There were folks advocating a buyout of Alan Pulido with his sketchy injury history earlier in the offseason (or even before last season when it was initially announced he’d miss the year). And if the team is already spending astronomical money on someone like Ronaldo, I suppose this isn’t unreasonable to consider (‘it’s only another $2.2 million’ — Peter Vermes probably).

For any other run of the mill DP though, it feels less likely a buyout would happen.

Re-Allocate the U-22 Spots

Technically, even though Ndenbe, Voloder and Tzionis are under the U-22 designation, the funny money of MLS could potentially be moved around. The transfer fees of those three players aren’t so high that Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) couldn’t be used to move them to TAM status instead of a U-22 spot.

Now we don’t officially know how much TAM has/hasn’t already been spent (teams get up to $2,720,000 in 2023), so maybe there isn’t enough left. If there isn’t, like in the above scenario with Pulido/Russell, the team could trade, transfer or buyout a player (MLS teams get one buyout per offseason).

Just Sign Someone Cheaper

Now this one wouldn’t work for Ronaldo, or probably the other big European star that is rumored to have shown interest in KC, but the team could absolutely add a third DP that either has a salary under that $1.65m-ish number and no transfer fee or the salary plus the pro-rated transfer fee is under ~$1.65m.

It wouldn’t be as big of a splash. But technically someone like Erik Thommy could fall into this bucket and he has proven to be a damn good signing so far. If the team adds another DP, this is actually the way I think it is most likely to happen.

Other Considerations

All of this talk fails to take into account the other roster rules at play.

Probably the most important is SKC’s remaining open international rosters spots (something they can overcome, and we broke that down over here). Plus, they are limited on the number of senior roster spots they have available. By my count they may have used up 19 of 20 spots, and the team still only has three CBs signed for next season. They have to sign at least one more starting caliber CB in my eyes.

Now, it’s always possible that senior roster count is off with all the new contracts that were signed in the offseason.

So, there it is. The team can sort of sign anyone they want, but it’s a bit messy and comes with down roster complications. Or they can be choosier and not cripple themselves for the 2023 season (and secondary transfer window in the summer).

What would you prefer to see SKC do? Let us know in the comments.