mls Nashville SC

Nashville SC’s MLS Roster basics

Derrick Jones is one of four players Nashville’s MLS organization has signed. Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country

With a few extra days of rest of the team, keeping up with the grind of their games has been a little less strenuous this week.

So let’s take the time to get into the basics of MLS roster-building. Obviously, it will be of major interest to us next season. As a caution: MLS rules are frustratingly complicated. This will necessarily be more of a 10,000-foot view than getting deep into the weeds. (If you’re interested in that level of depth, the MLS Roster Rules and MLSPA Collective Bargaining Agreement can be read in their entirety).

Please note that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires prior to the 2020 season, so it’s possible (hopeful, on my part) that some of this will be eliminated by streamlining.

How many players are on a team?

Nashville SC is currently carrying 23 players. This is pretty small for a USL team – last year’s final roster included 27 players, and the size of the “active roster” is 30 players. The majority of teams in USL are closer to last year’s numbers, and some actually carry more than the 30 (but anyone over that number is technically a trialist not available for selection week-to-week).

MLS rosters are a bit more rigid in size: they can be up to 30 players, with 20 on the “senior roster,” four on the “supplemental roster,” four on the “reserve roster,” and two additional homegrown players who basically fit in with the reserve roster.

These terms are confusing – they make it seem like only 20 players are eligible for selection week-to-week – but simply put, they relate to the amount those players can be paid and how they impact the salary cap, nothing more or less (at least from the fan’s perspective). All 30 players have the same on-field eligibility, which is to say that any individual player could get every minute of the season – or no minutes all season – regardless of which roster bin he technically falls into.

So what doesn’t count against the salary cap then?

Only the players on the senior roster count toward the salary cap, which for 2019 is $4,240,000 (this is a little on the malleable side – we’ll get into the ways around that in a moment). With a new CBA going into next season, the cap may end up in a totally different place, but it’s risen about 5% per year in recent history, which would put it at about $4,452,000 next season if there’s not major restructuring.

So, if only players 1-20 fit into the salary cap, couldn’t a team just pay a basically infinite amount about to the guys in spots 21-30 to get around it? That’s the trick: there are rigid rules to how much players in those positions can be paid.

Players on the supplemental roster must make the senior minimum salary ($70,250 for the 2019 season), unless they’re Generation Adidas players – guys who leave college early or forgo it altogether with Adidas and MLS paying their salary – or Homegrown Players who make the senior minimum salary plus a Homegrown subsidy paid with allocation money.

Players on the reserve roster are in a similar boat, except with a lower minimum salary (conveniently called the “reserve minimum”) of $56,250, and they must be under 24 years of age. There cannot be Generation Adidas players on this roster (all GA players fall under the “supplemental” designation until they graduate from the program). Homegrowns under 24 can fit into this category if they only make $56,250 plus any MLS Homegrown subsidy.

The final two spots are exactly the same as the reserve roster, except players must be Homegrowns. To me, it would be much simpler if the league just said the reserve roster consists of six players, two of whom have to be Homegrown Players, but hey, I don’t make the rules (or write them down in confusing forms).

So: aside from players with a homegrown subsidy (up to $125k per player, payable in allocation money), essentially the concept is that those not on the senior roster make a league-minimum salary, whether that’s the senior minimum or the reserve minimum, depending on age eligibility, etc.

Fitting under the salary cap or: how I learned to stop worrying and use terms like “targeted allocation money” in everyday conversation

This is the complicated stuff

So if the salary cap is $4,240,000 and there are 20 players on the Senior Roster, everybody makes $212,000 and we call it a day, right? WRONG!

There’s an individual salary maximum – though there are multiple mechanisms through which guys can make much, much more than that – the majority of MLS players make less than that (the median with slightly different, but close enough, budget rules in 2018 was $154,618), and MLS roster rules are very confusing and I’m going to explain a lot of it and it will become irrelevant inshallah the 2020 CBA simplifies a lot of this.

Anyway: the maximum budget hit for an individual player is 12.5% (one-eighth, if you’re a fraction-lover) of the team’s total salary cap. That means for 2019, it’s $530,000. So how did Sebastian Giovinco make over $7 million last year? Or Carlos Vela well over $6 million this year?

Welcome to the Designated Player rule! Each team has three DP spots, and the players in those spots can make literally any amount of money (I’d assume the player’s union would frown upon their earning less than the maximum budget charge, but we’re talking about no ceiling more so than no floor in terms of that compensation). No matter what – they can be making $6m-plus like Vela, or $530,000.01 – they count against the team’s salary budget at that $530,000 mark. Anything above that comes out of the team’s pocketbooks, but doesn’t count against their salary cap.

DP spots used to be tradable, but with the advent of two other ways to pay guys more than the max budget charge (yep, more complicated stuff is coming), they no longer are. That’s part of a league effort to get teams to use all three instead of trading them away and using a lack of DP openings as an excuse to carry a very cheap roster.

So: what are these other two ways of paying guys more than that budget hit? Welcome to Allocation Money, a.k.a. Garberbucks (its eponym is league commissioner Don Garber). Before getting into how it’s used, I’m going to quickly talk about the difference between the two types:

  • General Allocation Money – This can be used for any purpose against the salary cap (offsetting player wages or transfer fees as they relate to the salary cap, etc.). If it is unused, the team can bank GAM indefinitely.
  • Targeted Allocation Money – This is also used against the salary cap, but it can only be used on players making more than the maximum budget charge to get them back below that (i.e. out of designated player territory), or in certain other specific cases. It is granted on an annual basis, but can be banked if unused. Unlike GAM, however, it expires after two years.

These are both tradable assets. Since TAM can only be used in specific situations and it eventually expires, the market has set the exchange rate with GAM about 1.5 times more valuable than TAM (yes, there have been multiple trades with teams only exchanging different types of imaginary money with each other).

The amount of allocation money for each MLS team varies year-to-year, but all are given $200k per year in GAM (remember, it doesn’t expire, so they can bank it for future years if necessary). Then teams that missed the playoffs in the previous year get an additional $200k, teams that sell a player overseas get some of their portion of the transfer fee (MLS takes a cut) in GAM, and there are a couple other mechanisms (including expansion fees from a club like Nashville SC) through which a vague amount is also distributed.

Each team must spend (or I guess trade) $1.2 million in TAM each year, with expansion clubs getting an additional amount – it was $200k for Cincinnati this year. Then they can choose to spend up to an additional $2.8 million if they so desire (or trade some of that, as well). Thus, the pre-trade amount of TAM available is a minimum of $1.2 million and a maximum of $4 million per club.

So: if you have a guy making $2 million, he can be a designated player. If he’s making $1 million, he can either be a designated player, or a team can “spend” $470k in allocation money to make him count at the maximum budget hit, opening up a DP spot for a different guy. GAM and TAM can be spread across the senior roster (TAM can also be used in certain situations on the Supplemental Roster – it cannot be overstated how unnecessarily complicated MLS roster rules are) however the team sees fit, though only one or the other can be used on any specific guy – no mixy-matchy between the pair on a single player.

There have been rumblings – or predictions, whether based on reporting or simplelet’s make this not stupid” (both $$ links from The Athletic) – that the 2020 CBA will have some sort of simplification of the DP/Allocation situation. If that’s the case, I wasted a bunch of time writing this, but will be happier in the long run.

So: I oversimplified a lot of the aspects of this, and that section is still a full newspaper feature column in length. Cool.

International slot? Young DP? Homegrown? what why please somebody save me from writing the rest of this story

Now that the more-complicated part is through, some easier-to-digest stuff: Each team starts with eight international slots, but they can be traded. Any player who is not a US citizen or green card holder (Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps get Canada and the US for these designations) takes up an international slot.

Homegrown players are those who are developed by the academy of an MLS club (they must play in the academy for at least a year to qualify), and they get some special roster accounting mechanisms as described above. Each club gets a homegrown territory – though this is potentially going away by the time Nashville SC joins in 2020, and that the MLS website has scrubbed any references to defining those is probably telling – and if a prospect comes from that area, they get first right of refusal before another club can designate them a Homegrown.

Like with other portions of this post, I’m oversimplifying to a degree, but one of the biggest aspects I haven’t mentioned yet is that clubs retain 100% of a transfer fee for a Homegrown player sold overseas, whereas MLS gets a bigger cut for non-Homegrowns. For example: New York Red Bulls got to keep every dime they made (uh, from their parent organization) from selling US International Tyler Adams this offseason.

Homegrown players’ rights are retained by the club that developed them: Chicago has rights to defender Andrew Gutman, which prevented Nashville SC (who, it must be noted, is not yet in MLS, which brings up the Most Important MLS Roster Rule: all of this is arbitrary and meaningless and changes at the whims of the commissioner and a whiny/incompetent owner all the time) from bringing him on loan after he signed with Scotland’s Celtic FC. Those rights can be traded for, as well – NSC has done that with one signing already, so stick around for the big reveal.

There’s also an allocation order for certain high-profile players coming from outside MLS (who populate the aptly-named Allocation List). Toronto FC just used the first spot in the allocation order to acquire US International Omar Gonzalez from Mexican club Pachuca, which means Colorado Rapids are now on the allocation clock whenever they want to use it (allocation spots can be traded – TFC got to the top of the order in a trade with FC Cincinnati). Fabian Johnson, Matt Miazga, Tim Ream, Deandre Yedlin are a couple examples of guys on the allocation list, in case you’re wondering what sort of player is on it – generally USMNT players or high-profile former MLS guys playing overseas.

So what does Nashville SC already have in the fold?

The amount of Allocation Money available to expansion teams before they enter the league is kept a mystery, but we know Nashville SC has already traded some away: they gave $175k GAM to the Union in exchange for midfielder Derrick Jones, and $350k GAM and $100k TAM to Columbus Crew in exchange for winger David Accam (effective prior to next season).

We also know that not only those two players, but a couple others are on MLS contracts (with all but Accam currently loaned to Nashville SC’s 2019 USL outfit): strikers Cameron Lancaster and Daniel Ríos signed in preseason. The club hasn’t disclosed the terms of their respective contracts, but one must assume they’re at least two-year deals – meaning each of them is on contract through the MLS debut season in 2020 – and I personally would believe them to both be not too far above the senior minimum (which, if you’ve been taking meticulous notes, you know is $70,250).

Jones was just above senior minimum last year with the Union, while Accam is in DP (or TAM) territory at around $1,250,000. NSC also traded for Jones’s Homegrown rights, so when the 2020 season arrives – depending on his compensation – one of their key players can be on the supplemental roster. Shrewd wheeling and dealing if he develops as expected.

Jones is an American (naturalized after growing up in Ghana) and Accam is a Green Card holder (and Jones’s fellow native of Ghana), so both count as domestic players, while Lancaster and Ríos will both occupy international slots next year.

How a roster is built

I’ll get into further details (with comparison to past expansion teams) in coming weeks, so I won’t get too far into detail now. However, there are a few different ways MLS teams acquire players, some of which I’ve already described above:

  • Intra-league transfers (how NSC acquired Accam and Jones)
  • Transfers from abroad
  • Signing from other levels of American soccer (how NSC acquired Lancaster and Ríos)
  • MLS SuperDraft
  • Discovery (essentially calling dibs on guys who aren’t on the allocation list) and Allocation List signings
  • Free agent signings
  • Academy/USL affiliate signings
  • Taking players on loan (how NSC attempted to get Andrew Gutman for the USL season)

In due time, Nashville will be using all of these, even if they’ve only used two of them – and attempted to use a third for USL purposes only – to date.


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