This will be a much shorter article this week, so fair warning. If you’re expecting a really long article explaining the intricacies of how MLS favors competitive parity over the overall strength of the league, that’s not what you’ll get this week. On the other hand, if you didn’t like those long articles, you’re welcome. This will also be the last article in this series. In the first article, we got into the history of the Beautiful Game in the States, in the second article we covered the organizational quirks that make MLS unique, and in the previous article we discussed a lot of the roster rules and regulations that attempt to keep a somewhat-level playing field across all teams, regardless of individual team owners’ wealth. Today’s article is another example of how the rules attempt to protect a team’s money and investment.
Atlanta United made the news (again) this week by “selling the rights to Yamil Asad” to DC United. What on earth does this mean? Nothing like this happens on the regular in Europe with players sent from one team to another when the player is no longer on the first team’s roster. Yeah, players are traded or transferred between teams when those players are on rosters with one of those teams to begin with, but Asad was on loan from top-flight Argentine club Club Atlético Vélez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires. Atlanta United should technically have no rights to Asad; the only team that should have the rights to Asad are Vélez, right? Not in MLS.
In Major League Soccer, in an attempt to protect the investment made by a club in scouting, the first MLS club to “discover” a player thereby owns the “rights” of that player to play in MLS. Since Atlanta “discovered” Asad first, they and they alone owned the ability to bring him to play in MLS, even though he was only on loan and not with the team when the deal was struck. Since DC United wanted Asad, they had to give Atlanta some money as, essentially, a reward for the being the first team to bring Asad into MLS in order to sign him to their team (reports are he will be on loan again, with an option to purchase). If another MLS team wants to have Asad on their roster, they’ll now have to pay DC to gain that right.
Why is this a rule? Why can’t all teams pursue good players, and then the player comes to an agreement with the team they like the most? Because, again, the goal here with this rule is to keep all teams on as level a playing field as possible so the team owners are not compelled to spend millions of dollars in building a team that is more competitive than the rest. MLS is a league that is still relatively new, so the general feeling is that if the league wants to remain stable, it must keep costs down, and this is a way to do it. If you’ll remember to earlier articles in this series, the league technically operates as a single-entity, meaning that all player contracts are owned by the league instead of the teams they play for. This allows MLS to keep salary costs down through the silly rules outlined in those articles, and thereby keep costs down.
This, however, stifles league growth, as does the rule outlined specifically in this article. Yes, costs are kept down and the league continues to make money, but the league improves year-over-year about as much as the salary cap increases on a percentage basis, and sometimes even less than that. It is not a perfect league, but it’s a league that’s trying to become an exciting league, primarily (at least, at the moment) by expanding franchises to new cities. A Miami MLS team just announced that they will be joining the league in 2020, along with Nashville’s MLS team, and there will be another announcement soon to add another MLS team in 2019. So the league is growing and improving, and it looks like the league is trying to claw its way up to becoming a great global league. It will just take a long time to get there under the current rules system.