mls

Fever Dreams: Let’s fix MLS budget rules

Welcome to another entry in Fever Dreams, my irregular series wherein I spend quarantine brainstorming ways to make soccer better. Today, we look at the byzantine roster rules in Major League Soccer.

MLS roster rules are complicated! Whether it’s allocation money, designated player spots, reserve roster, on-budget, off-budget… there’s a lot going on. Indeed, there’s basically an entire cottage industry (led by The Athletic‘s Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal, but in which I am also a participant) in which the rules are explained and deconstructed, changes recommended, and so on.

I wish not to dismantle that cottage industry… well, actually I do wish to dismantle it. My primary aim in re-imagining MLS roster rules is to simplify them, and make them more player-friendly… without making them less owner-friendly. At least, not much less.

The concept

I shouted out Tenorio and Stejskal above, and it’s worth noting that their offseason brainstorm($) inspired some of the choices I’ve made here. If you’re a subscriber to The Athletic, read it. If you’re not, join and then read it.

The base-level concept they’re working toward is simplification of the rules while leaving some of the roster mechanisms (designated players, homegrowns) in existence. My plan is taking it to slightly more extreme edges of their operating logic. Their story necessitated increased budget numbers. Mine will live within the 2020 realm – with various types of allocation money, about $10 million available per team (before DPs) – but is scalable to essentially any overall number.

Here we go:

  • Roster sizes remain at 30 players. A minimum of 27 of these must be filled at any given time.
  • There are still three designated player slots per team. These are not tradable. DPs can make any amount of money, and they must be the three highest-compensated players on the team.
  • Every player aside from DPs makes league-minimum salary from the base budget. I’m raising that to $100,000 (in the real world, it’s $81,375). That means $2.7 million in base budget.
  • The remaining $7.3 million is in a single pool of allocation money. Any non-DP can get any amount of that money, as long as the team’s total allocation spend is $7.3 million. There is no individual maximum (I guess it’s theoretically $7.4 million) for a non-DP.
  • All $10 million must be spent (I’m willing to consider allowing offsets for infrastructure spending instead of requiring every dime be spent on the roster).
  • Homegrown players and rookie draft picks do not count against allocation budget, regardless of how much money above the $100k minimum wage they make. There is no limit to the number of these players on a roster.
  • All transfer fees are included in budget charges with similar accounting to the current system (amortized over the life of the contract for player acquisitions). Incoming transfer fees – for selling players abroad – do not have a cut taken by the league.

I think that hits the big-ticket items. Let’s look at the reasoning behind some of these decisions.

The why

I really don’t think it matters how big the roster is. I chose 30 because that’s the current size, and it makes the division of the money a little bit easier to begin with. I’m also flexible on the number of designated player slots available per team, because as you probably realize, I’ve opened the door for teams to have plenty of high-budget players if they so desire. There is no “floor” for a DP’s salary anymore, though: they simply are the three highest-paid players on the team, and have to be making more than the highest-paid non-DP (so I guess the theoretical minimum would be around $371k).

I’ve raised the minimum wage in the league by a fairly significant amount. I think the players deserve a bigger piece of the pie (it’s really that simple!), and particularly those on the lower end of the roster. It makes MLS more attractive to middle-tier players from the Americas and Europe, because the minimum wage is higher, and also makes professional soccer a more viable career path for young Americans and Canadians.

On that note, I’ll briefly jump to the final bullet point, because it sort of serves a similar purpose: teams are incentivized to develop players, and they’re incentivized to fill the back-end of their rosters with guys fresh out of college (for what it’s worth, my draft proposal would be a good fit for this budget construction, as well. I’m also way more married to a draft-and-follow concept than I am to this re-budgeting idea). That means more young players are given the opportunity to prove themselves, however they’re entering the league.

OK, back to the big idea, which I wisely buried in the middle of a bulleted list: after exactly $100k per player, all money to be spent is “allocation money.” This allows teams to construct their rosters in the way they see fit. A team with an Atlanta United or LAFC philosophy, for example, may try to spread it in a top-heavy way to have multiple players who are in “DP only” salary range (under current roster rules, $1.6 million), in addition to their three Designated Players. A Sporting Kansas City-type philosophy may see three DPs, but the allocation money spread pretty evenly across the rest of the roster, having a bunch of guys making about $400,000 to augment the big-money trio. There can be a range of philosophies in between, of course.

The reason for requiring all $10 million be spent in total is obvious: to guarantee a minimum standard for teams in terms of available budget. Yes, there can be franchises that don’t use the allocation money efficiently or wisely (not naming names, but it’s obviously FC Cincinnati), but they won’t have the excuse of crying poor, to say the least. And again, part of this is ensuring that the management/labor split in revenue distribution has a bare minimum, as well.

The problems

There’s a ton of value in developing homegrown players. That’s a good thing! However, the system as I’ve constructed it above disincentivizes the selling of homegrowns: they basically create free allocation money for your roster (if they’re more valuable than the minimum wage, at least). If you sell that player, you can’t easily replace them with a player of similar quality, because it would require allocation money.

The solution for that is pretty simple, I think: if you sell a Homegrown player overseas (remember, this is cash that you keep), you get a one-year bump in allocation money equal to the amount over $100k he was making. That may lead to teams overpaying Homegrowns before selling them, but… hardly the biggest problem in human history, right? It means soccer players make more compensation, and get sold overseas more frequently, injecting money into the league. The juice is worth the squeeze there. A system where the league has to approve those pay increases is possible, though I’d rather not give additional power to the league office when avoidable.

Another issue with my system – and why it wouldn’t likely get past the MLSPA as written – is that it incentivizes teams to replace aging role players with draft picks, pushing the vets out of the league (because first-year draft picks don’t use any allocation money by the letter of the rule). The Players’ Association is getting a major bone thrown its way in the form of… everything else about my system giving them more money.

Players who are good enough to stick in the league will do so nonetheless. Those cast aside because of draft picks getting their chance could actually help make USL a more talented, stable league. The system incentivizes the development and introduction of more American (and Canadian) soccer players, so the pool for the entire US league system should be greater. Young players who wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to stick with a pro team get their opportunity to shine, and it gets paid forward.

The final major negative is one that fans aren’t going to lose much sleep over: the simplification of the rules provides a little more transparency, and from the league’s perspective, makes it a little easier to unpack. I don’t think there’s much question that the complexity – and opacity – of the rules as currently written is by design. The cottage industry that led this post would suffer, which is a cost that its industrialists (myself included) would have some bittersweet feelings about.

The implementation

Aside from some of the MLSPA and league hesitancies that I’ve outlined (and to some extent, addressed) above, it seems fairly straightforward.

Keeping the roster rules a liiiiittle esoteric but more understandable for people who are willing to put in just a bit of effort attracts a uniquely American variety of fan. It’s also a type of fan that the league would be extremely extremely well-served to court. Heck, even changing the name from “Designated Players” to “Salary Cap-Exempt Players” puts it into terminology that 1) makes more sense broadly, and 2) is more appealing to fans of other American sports.

It increases spending across the league – surely a sticking point for some of the cheaper owners, but these are guys who need to accept the responsibilities that come with owning a team instead of just reaping the benefits – and flexibility, allowing teams to build within their own philosophies. It encourages development of homegrowns and introduction of draft picks, ultimately increasing the volume and quality of the player pool.

A simpler system is a win-win proposition (except inasmuch as the league wants its roster rules shrouded in secrecy), and good for the game.

Hany Mukhtar was Nashville SC’s first – and to date, remains the only – Designated Player. Photo courtesy Nashville SC.

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