On Thursday, Nashville SC announced a new signing: recent Indiana University graduate (and MAC Hermann Trophy winner as college soccer’s best player) Andrew Gutman. The left back would join the team on a one-year loan from Celtic FC. By Saturday, the club had announced that Gutman’s loan deal was off. What happened?
For starters, it’s worth noting that every press release issued for a player signing includes a key phrase: “pending league and federation approval.” While Nashville SC intended to sign Gutman only for its USL club, the later statement indicates it was a third party – Major League Soccer, with whom Nashville SC will play in 2020 and beyond – whose league approval was not granted. Based on conversations with multiple sources, this issue likely revolved around a complaint to the league office by the Chicago Fire, the club that holds Gutman’s Homegrown rights (about which more in a moment).
Let’s contextualize this a bit with a similar situation that arose last Summer: FC Cincinnati, the club that will precede NSC as an entrant to Major League Soccer by joining this season, attempted to sign US International wingback Fabian Johnson last Summer. That move, like this, was nixed by MLS. The Beautiful Game Network touched on where the primary issue lay in this deal:
Many speculated that Cincy intentionally tried to sign Johnson to their USL team NOW to avoid MLS rules so that they wouldn’t have to try to get him through the allocation system when they move to MLS next year. The move would have been entirely legal in the USL since there’s no USL allocation order.
That is indeed true: FC Cincinnati tried to sign him to a multi-year deal, attempting to add Johnson to their roster so he wouldn’t be subject to the Allocation Order (for the time being, the specifics of “allocation order” and “homegrown signing” aren’t important except inasmuch as they’re mechanisms that restrict which clubs can sign certain players). You can argue whether that was an attempt to circumvent MLS rules or fair game for a club that wasn’t in Major League Soccer yet. That’s in the eye of the reader.
What I can say for certain is that Nashville SC wasn’t attempting such a move. Indeed, they’ve followed the letter of the law (which is difficult when that letter can change at the whims of a league that makes up rules as it goes along!) with their two MLS signings to date, strikers Daniel Ríos and Cameron Lancaster. They filed discovery claims* on each of them prior to signing them, going through the prescribed processes required of a club that isn’t trying to use USL to circumvent rules. In the case of Gutman, the club intended to sign a European player on a short-term (one-year) loan, and his time with Nashville SC would be limited exclusively to their tenure in USL – an important distinction from the Johnson case.
*From MLS Roster rules, the definition of the process: Pursuant to the Discovery Process, clubs scout and sign players who are not yet under contract to MLS and who are not subject to another assignment mechanism (e.g., Allocation Process, MLS SuperDraft). To sign a player through the Discovery Process, the club must first place the player on its Discovery List. A club may have up to seven unsigned players on its Discovery List at any time and may remove or add players at any time. There is no limit to how many players a club can sign from its Discovery List.
It’s time for some additional context: Nelson Rodriguez, general manager of the Chicago Fire, has a… mixed résumé, including running one MLS franchise literally out of existence, overseeing men’s national team development during part of the cycle that saw the team miss the World Cup for the first time in three decades, banning an entire section of the Fire’s supporter’s groups and getting the entire fanbase to turn on the team, and so on and so forth. You can probably also read between the lines a bit about a player whose rights are held by the Fire abruptly retiring two years into his career.
Rodriguez also attempted to sign Gutman to MLS contracts following his junior season at Indiana (in late 2017/early 2018) and again this off-season after Gutman’s conclusion of his eligibility at IU (late 2018/early 2019). Both times, Rodriguez was rebuffed by the young player. Those offers were admittedly low-ball, given Rodriguez reportedly doesn’t rate Gutman as a player. But it can’t possibly be the case that Rodriguez is using both his sway within Major League Soccer and an interpretation of homegrown rules to hold the player hostage with a benefit to… nobody (aside from maybe his desire to act on a petty grudge), can it?
This indeed appears to be the case. Of course, that requires Major League Soccer to change its rules on the fly, because – and this is important – there is no roster rule on the books that should preclude Nashville SC from loaning the player from Celtic F.C. While the Fire hold his MLS rights, he is not under any contract to Major League Soccer. If he plays in the league, it can’t be for anyone but the fire. Playing outside the league should be fair game, and the league office is overstepping its bounds and flexing on Nashville SC before it has any reasonable right to do so.
Here are the relevant portions of MLS rules as it relates to homegrowns:
Homegrown Players Signings
A club may sign a player to a contract without subjecting him to the MLS SuperDraft if the player has been a member of a club’s youth academy for at least one year and has met the necessary training and retention requirements. Players joining MLS through this mechanism are known as Homegrown Players.
There is no limit to the number of Homegrown Players a club may sign in a given year.
USL Priority Players
In addition to Homegrown Players and College Protected Players – clubs may have priority for up to three players from their respective United Soccer League (USL) affiliates. In order to retain priority on any additional USL affiliate players, such players must be added to an MLS club’s Discovery List.
So: if Gutman joins a Major League Soccer team, it has to be Chicago Fire. If he’s to join a USL team… well, the league is strong-arming Nashville SC to follow a rule that – and again, this is important – does not exist. They have leverage over NSC because of the club’s future in Major League Soccer, but enforcing rules that don’t exist (and remember, NSC has gone out of its way to follow MLS roster rules, even in instances where they might not otherwise be strictly required to) is a high bar to have to cross on a consistent basis. The loan stipulations in the roster rules have no mention of a player’s homegrown rights affecting loans between two non-MLS parties.
Certainly, the Major League Soccer Players’ Union will have a take on this. However, they have not responded to request for comment yet (nor has MLS, nor has the USL Players’ Union – which probably has more standing in the matter than MLSPA), and their Collective Bargaining agreement with the league includes the following language:
Except as such subjects are addressed elsewhere by this CBA, and without determining whether such subjects are mandatory or permissive subjects of bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act, during the term of this CBA, the Union expressly waives its statutory right to bargain over the subjects set forth in this Paragraph…. The subjects over which the Union expressly waives its right to bargain are: …player registration, transfer and loan rules, Home Grown Player rules, regulations and procedures;
The only portion of the CBA that may apply in this instance is the following (the rest are primarily regarding the amount of stipend owed to homegrown players):
Section 14.3 Academy Player Information: MLS will provide all Academy players annually with a fact/information sheet detailing the then-current Home Grown Player rules. The fact/information sheet shall include contact information for the Union
“then-current Home Grown rules” are listed above, where relevant, and again don’t mention anything about trades between two third-party clubs. It’s also important to note that Gutman is not an MLS player and not bound by – nor a beneficiary of – the terms collectively bargained for. All that applies to him is that which applies outside the realm of the individuals’ rights as collectively bargained. With the league’s short-sighted, anti-player move, it’s unlikely Gutman ever plies his trade in MLS (while initial indications were that he’d be bound for Charlotte Independence instead of Nashville, Scottish media is reporting he’s headed back to Glasgow, which could result in a reset of the loan decision process).
So, if there’s no specific rule that Major League Soccer decided Nashville SC was in violation of (or if there is, it’s not a public or previously-extant one), what is the impetus for blocking the loan move? (In line with the softly-worded tone of the statement from Nashville SC, this appears to technically be a “request” – but one that is effectively compulsory to grant). Damaging the league’s reputation among homegrown talent – already a huge problem, in case you’ve forgotten about the Weston McKennies and Christian Pulisics of the world – angering one of the world’s most-known clubs, probably violating FIFA statute and federal anti-trust laws… for what?
Certainly, coming at this from the perspective of a Nashville-oriented outlet colors things in a certain way, but given that seemingly nobody outside the league office and Fire front office (including the vast majority of Fire fans) seems to see this as justified, it’s pretty easy to look at the rules as they are presented, at the facts as they unfolded, and realize an injustice has been committed.