Softening The Salary Cap

Let's keep top talent in MLS longer and reward teams that continue to refine their skills. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

There are uncapped leagues in North America (MLB). There are hard capped leagues (NFL). There are even leagues that have ways of doing both (NBA). There are many approaches to league salary structure that are tested in the USA, and MLS' use of single entity and an initially very hard cap has worked to get them to a certain point in growth. Then they started softening that. First it was one DP, and then it was three DPs per team and then it was Home Grown Players being off budget for at least the first two contracts. MLS is not as strict as the NFL.

But there are a couple ways to bring more quality or keep more quality within Major League Soccer. One would be to add more DPs, another would be to remove transfer fees from the cap hit, another would be to borrow from the NBA's "Bird Exception."

The NBA launched the Bird Exception in order to allow its stars to stay with teams where they'd spent time. This is an issue in MLS as well. GMs of successful teams have to cut regular and good players because the cap hit goes up. This hurts the team's depth, encourages poor roster churn and disconnects the fanbase from players they love. In a sport that already has the highest average churn in the world (because there are tens of thousands of players), the tight cap encourages poor decision making, or good decision making that has the same effect as poor decision making.

Adding a similar rule (let's call it the Donovan Rule), would allow teams to retain players that they advance in their careers. Unlike the HGP rule which encourages development, this would be about refinement, about marginal improvements being rewarded rather than sold onto the higher leagues. It would mean Stuart Holden, Geoff Cameron, Ricardo Clark, Kenny Cooper, Nate Jaqua, etc. don't leave purely for more money. Certainly, many players would still leave to test themselves in higher-quality situations, but if MLS keeps even one-third of those that have been climbing the ladder it is a higher quality league than it has been. It would also mean more cap room for teams that use their Exception to retain talent, as the essence of the Rule is no cap hit.

The details are for smarter people than myself. A simple version would be that the rule applies to a player that has been with the same team for at least 7 transfer windows (3.5 seasons). A team could only use the Rule every other transfer window. Once exercised the remainder of the new contract or extension does not count towards the salary cap at all. These contracts, similar to DP and HGP deals would be the responsibility of the local investor/owner group. Like all MLS contracts, they would be subject to league approval. A player would not keep their rights when traded, but if traded after the contract they are an off cap player.

Imagine Seattle with an extra 350k of cap space because they retain Fredy Montero as a non-DP. This reward to the organization would be because they took him from near unknown and helped him become a perrenial MLS All Star. Or look backwards when the Houston Dynamo lost the creative Holden. Or having FC Dallas be able to retain George John or Brek Shea rather than lose them to lower EPL sides for not much money. Or even just have Real Salt Lake not have to lose Robbie Russell due to his cap hit (they may have dealt him anyway due to family situations). Currently, the league or teams are going to lose players like this. The league is weaker than it could be with a smallish tweak.

At this point about 10% of the league qualifies for being with their team in their fourth season. Many of these are players that aren't difference makers. But a few are. Some are even DPs who could be kept in the league on a new deal. The concept rewards teams for keeping players happy and productive. Those players than get rewarded as well. A team that drafts or discovers a talent and takes them from a 60k to 250k player now loses them because the cap hit is worse than the talent those players add. This change reduces that effect.

Landon Donovan is one of the most notable. The LA Galaxy benefited from previous exceptions in the DP era. Giving them a reward for Donovan may seem odd, but by encapsulating it in a rule there's some other strong talents that could be kept in MLS as well. Because several of these players are going to leave MLS. For the league to be a "Top League by 2020" it must keep that talent. Even if it is only some not all.

The full list has top talents and lesser talents both, but even getting a 100k player off of the cap would help the small market teams. They'd have a player that would be clear to their fanbase and corporate sponsors is a larger part of the community. It is ordered by length of time spent with the organization.

Player

Team

Pablo Mastroeni Colorado Rapids
Logan Pause Chicago Fire
Matt Reis New England Revolution
Chad Marshall Columbus Crew
Gonzalo Segares Chicago Fire
Landon Donovan LA Galaxy
Andy Gruenebaum Columbus Crew
Eddie Gaven Columbus Crew
Brad Davis Houston Dynamo
Brian Ching Houston Dynamo
Eric Kronberg Sporting Kansas City
Jorge Villafaña Chivas USA
Conor Casey Colorado Rapids
Omar Cummings Colorado Rapids
Danny O'Rourke Columbus Crew
William Hesmer Columbus Crew
Corey Ashe Houston Dynamo
David Beckham LA Galaxy
Sainey Nyassi New England Revolution
Chris Wingert Real Salt Lake
Fabian Espindola Real Salt Lake
Javier Morales Real Salt Lake
Kyle Beckerman Real Salt Lake
Kyle Reynish Real Salt Lake
Nick Rimando Real Salt Lake
Michael Harrington Sporting Kansas City
Marco Pappa Chicago Fire
Patrick Nyarko Chicago Fire
Dan Kennedy Chivas USA
Brek Shea FC Dallas
Bruno Guarda FC Dallas
Bobby Boswell Houston Dynamo
Bryan Jordan LA Galaxy
Josh Saunders LA Galaxy
Sean Franklin LA Galaxy
Chris Tierney New England Revolution
Jámison Olave Real Salt Lake
Nat Borchers Real Salt Lake
Tony Beltran Real Salt Lake
Will Johnson Real Salt Lake
Jason Hernandez San Jose Earthquakes
Ramiro Corrales San Jose Earthquakes
Chance Myers Sporting Kansas City
Roger Espinoza Sporting Kansas City
Ante Jazic Chivas USA
Drew Moor Colorado Rapids
Jamie Smith Colorado Rapids
Matt Pickens Colorado Rapids
Scott Palguta Colorado Rapids
Steward Ceus Colorado Rapids
Emilio Rentería Columbus Crew
Chris Pontius D.C. United
Dejan Jakovic D.C. United
Daniel Hernandez FC Dallas
David Ferreira FC Dallas
George John FC Dallas
Jair Benitez FC Dallas
Ugo Ihemelu FC Dallas
Andre Hainault Houston Dynamo
Cam Weaver Houston Dynamo
Tally Hall Houston Dynamo
Tyler Deric Houston Dynamo
A.J. DeLaGarza LA Galaxy
Mike Magee LA Galaxy
Omar Gonzalez LA Galaxy
Todd Dunivant LA Galaxy
Bobby Shuttleworth New England Revolution
Darrius Barnes New England Revolution
Kevin Alston New England Revolution
Ned Grabavoy Real Salt Lake
Chris Wondolowski San Jose Earthquakes
Brad Evans Seattle Sounders FC
Fredy Montero Seattle Sounders FC
Jhon Kennedy Hurtado Seattle Sounders FC
Osvaldo Alonso Seattle Sounders FC
Patrick Ianni Seattle Sounders FC
Steve Zakuani Seattle Sounders FC
Zach Scott Seattle Sounders FC
Graham Zusi Sporting Kansas City
Kei Kamara Sporting Kansas City
Matt Besler Sporting Kansas City
Stefan Frei Toronto FC

It would make it a bit harder on future expansion sides. There would need to be some kind of exception for them, maybe a similar rule for the players they bring up from lower division, or additional allocation money. But smart talent evaluators and businessmen need to be rewarded and at the same time MLS needs a level of parity to help generate interest in all markets. There are other ways the Cap could be softened, but this may be the best way to help all current teams without damaging overall competitiveness.

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