Fears of expansion causing talent dilution unfounded

Jim Rogash

Recently the narrative that MLS can not handle the rapid expansion to 24 teams is gaining traction. It is baseless.

Adding Orlando, Miami, a second New York area team and at least two more clubs in the next few years is a daunting task. The recent report from Forbes shows that most MLS teams are either profitable or very close to profitable. Nudging the TV dollars up just a smidgen solves that business problem. But there is concern that American soccer can not handle to growth of its top flight as there is not enough talent to even maintain the current quality level in Major League Soccer.

A former Revolution coach even went so far as to say that the average player is worse than it was when he lead the best non-trophying dynasty in league history.

He's wrong. So is anyone else that is worried about expansion and talent dilution.

Expansion is not happening in a vacuum. Let's just take a look at what MLS has done to bring in more talent through mechanisms that did not exist in MLS 2.0 (contraction to 2007).

Designated Players - This seems pretty obvious, but the league a mere seven seasons ago did not have any designated players and really only had a handful at that quality level (the grandfathered contracts). Since then not only did MLS add one DP per club in 2007, it expanded the rule to allow three. Then it added the Youth DP rule. Then it added the "league impact DP" or whatever the system is called for players that are right on the edge of being a DP so that clubs could get an extra million towards a transfer fee. Every single teams has at least one of these players. Top end talent is higher than it has ever been, that includes MLS 1.0 (founding through contraction) with the aging World Cup '94 stars that signed at DP level deals.

But it is not just the top end talents that have expanded.

Retention Funds - New this year each club has a means using over $200,000 dollars in an allocation money like system to retain players that are not quite DPs. This didn't exist before in MLS 2.0. That's why the pattern of leaving for Scandinavia became a thing. It is not as strong of a thing now. National team quality players are choosing to stay because they essentially make the same amount of money in salary while getting to play in front of larger crowds and in nations where they already know the language.

Allocation Money - No, this is not new. But there is a new means of earning Allocation - qualifying for the CCL. Good teams don't have to lose as much talent as they used to because they get a hundred thousand dollars or more to spend on guys off of the cap. That tool did not exist. There is another source of Allocation Money that is directly related to expansion - EXPANSION Allocation. Without expansion several hundred thousand dollars of off cap money does not exist. It is not traded around the league. It is not spent to keep or find new talents.

Both of these systems help the mid-level players. That's probably the best level of judgement for the quality of a league. How good are the average guys. The answer is pretty simple - guys like Troy Perkins are no longer leaving MLS as quickly as possible. In fact they come back to the league.

What about the bottom of the roster though? Surely that's worse? Only if you think the following things are not helping expand the talent pool for MLS quality players.

Homegrown Players and the Academies - Another thing that didn't exist several years ago. A greater impact every year is coming out of the Academies and it is doing so by increasing the level of first round draft talent overall. Each year more and more players come up through those ranks. Prior to the USSDA there was the Project-40 system based out of Bradenton. It produced talents. Some were quite good. Others were failures. It was a couple dozen guys through one coaching system. Now take five MLS teams and they are doing the same thing. There are 19 MLS teams.

Internationals in the Draft - This is an odd system for sure, but it is one that takes a handful of league discovered international talents and adds them to the pool of draftable players. How is the league finding those players? Now, unlike in prior years they have full time scouts dedicated to Latin America and Asia. Starting this offseason MLS is adding a player combine in the Caribbean. The quest to find more diamonds in the rough has greatly expanded from a time when talent discovery was an accident.

Tripling Minimum Wage - As recently as 2009 the minimum wages for MLS players were a pathetic 12k and 14k per year. Players like Lamar Neagle had to work two other jobs and live with their parents. The bottom end of the roster was so underpaid and underused that MLS got rid of it for a couple years. While the minimums are not high, they are now better than working full time at a non-soccer minimum wage job. Now at 35k and 46k that at least provides enough income that when combined with team meals, health care, etc it is livable in all but the highest cost of living areas. There is a reason why so many players at that level left MLS for places like Finland or the lower divisions - they made more money. For the most part now they stay.

Frankly, the good old days weren't that good. Many teams did not have training facilities, their players worked alongside teenagers making 6$ an hour just to have spending money. There were some stars and then there were guys that wanted to play in Sweden but weren't good enough.

A lot has changed in the last seven years. Everything off the field for MLS is better, without question. TV stations actually pay money to the league, as opposed to the league paying them. Investment firms spend more than 100 million to be a part of the financial success. Cities actually build MLS teams stadia.

All of this happened. Steve Nicols knows that it happened. He's nostalgic. That's fine. But he also never got the type of scouting, training and access to quality players as the modern coaches do. Expansion is scary. Individual teams are going to lose a player or two through a different method than they already lose them.

The league though? It's just fine. It's simply better than it was in the good old days. The players that are choosing to play here are proof of that.

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