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Pulling back the curtain on player acquisitions

One of the more notable additions to Major League Soccer this offseason was undoubtedly the signing of teen-standout Luis Gil.

What should have been seen as a coup for MLS -- and Real Salt Lake which ultimately ended up with his services --was instead viewed by many detractors as yet another example of the league's insistence on rigging the rules however it sees fit.

Whether or not that viewpoint is fair somewhat misses the point. The reality is that most casual MLS fans -- and even many seasoned observers -- don't understand how front offices go about building their teams. 

The league's website provides Rules and Regulations, but even that needs a fair amount of explanation. (Although a new CBA could change some things -- players are pushing for less restrictive rules in regards to those who are "out of contract" -- most of that language will remain intact.)

In a non-expansion year, when players move within MLS it's usually one of two ways -- via trade or through waivers. During the 2008 offseason, for example, there were a total of 29 transactions involving a player moving from one MLS squad to another. All but seven of those involved a trade. All seven involved players who had been released by their former teams before their contracts had expired.

There's no reason to waste too much time on how trades work. Essentially, players can be swapped for just about anything ranging from other players to allocation money (we'll get into that later) to draft choices. (I'm also going to assume there's a basic understanding of the EXPANSION DRAFT and SUPERDRAFT, and won't be explaining those in detail, either.)

In the case of WAIVERS, MLS rules are relatively straightforward:

(G) WAIVERS

A team may place a player on waivers at any time during the regular season at which point he is made available to all other teams. The waiver claiming period shall commence on the first business day after the League delivers notice to teams and shall expire at 5 p.m. EST on the second business day after the Waiver Period Commencement Date. The claiming period is 48 hours.

In instances where multiple teams place waiver claims on the same player -- this usually happens shortly after the roster cutoff date -- the league conducts a Waiver Draft.

In the offseason, the order of the draft is determined by reverse order of standings. Expansion teams are placed at the bottom of the list. After at least three games have been played during the season, the order is determined by points per game. Once a team selects a player via Waiver Draft, they move to the back of the line for subsequent drafts.

Where the rules are less straightforward, however, is when a player's contract runs out and he is not able to come to terms with his former team -- these players are considered OUT OF CONTRACT.

OUT OF CONTRACT PLAYERS / OPTIONS NOT PICKED UP: a team retains the right of first refusal to the player indefinitely only if attempts were made to re-sign the player.

Usually what ends up happening in these cases is that the team has attempted to re-sign an aging player at a reduced rate -- Dave van den Bergh is a recent high-profile example -- the player refuses and the team refuses to place him on waivers. 

In this case, the player is left with two choices: try to sign with a team in a different league, most likely overseas, or wait for his old team to trade his rights. What makes this especially tricky is that since the league holds his contract, it is left trying to find a team willing to take the salary-cap hit without allowing the player to directly negotiate with other teams. With most teams not have an excess of salary-cap space and understandably unwilling to trade for a player they aren't sure if they'll be able to sign, the player can very easily find himself squeezed out of a job.

This is a bit off-topic but it bears mentioning: Perhaps the single biggest thing players seem to be asking for in the CBA negotiations is for this rule to be changed. At the very least, they would like to be able to negotiate with teams individually, as opposed to having to go through the league.

The league rarely has these kind of problems finding places for young players or those with built-in drawing power -- Kasey Keller, for example.

When the league acquires a player like that, it is almost always with the knowledge that at least one team is willing to make room for the player. 

(A) ALLOCATIONS
The allocations will be ranked in reverse order of finish for the 2008 season, taking playoff performance into account. Seattle, as an expansion team, will have the top-ranked allocation at the beginning of 2009. The rankings will be separate and distinct from the allocation amounts and will only be relevant in the event two or more teams file a request for the same player on the same day, in the case of returning U.S. National Team players, or in other cases where the League, in its discretion taking into account all the circumstances, determines that the allocation rankings shall be applied. In such cases, priority will be granted to the team with the higher allocation ranking. Once the team uses its allocation ranking to acquire a player it will drop to the bottom of the list. The ranking itself can be traded provided part of the compensation received in return is another team's ranking.

Each team is given an ALLOCATION AMOUNT every season to sign players whose rights are not already owned by the league or to re-sign current players with league approval. 

A club receives allocation money for (1) poor performance during the preceding MLS regular season; (2) the transfer of a player to a club outside of MLS for value; (3) roster purposes due to expansion status; and/or (4) exceptional circumstances as approved by the Competition Committee.

There are, of course, other signings that don't fit into these main categories.

Such as Luis Gil.

The 16-year-old Californian had been reportedly pursued by Arsenal after a brilliant amateur career which culminated with him leading the U.S. U-17 team to a CONCACAF championship, tallying a goal and two assists in the final against Cuba. 

It was seen as a bit of a coup for MLS to convince him to remain stateside -- although reports differ on how interested Arsenal was in ultimately signing him -- and the online world was abuzz in anticipation of where he'd end up. (He was signed just after the SuperDraft.)

The initial speculation was that he'd somehow end up with one of the two L.A.-based team -- despite the fact that there would be a lottery for his rights that would give the worst teams from last year a decided advantage. Eventually, that pool of teams was believed to include the San Jose Earthquakes. Finally, rumors leaked that as part of his signing, Gil had identified just two teams for which he was interested in playing: Seattle and Salt Lake. 

Which would seem to fly in the face of the rules regarding the lottery: 

(H) LOTTERY
Some players shall be assigned to MLS teams via the weighted Lottery process. ... Players are assigned via the lottery system in order to prevent a player from potentially influencing his destination club with a strategic holdout.

Emphasis mine. As we now know, before signing, Gil had stipulated that he indeed wanted to play for the Sounders or Real Salt Lake. Although the Kansas City Wizards eventually won the lottery and made some attempt to convince Gil to play for them, within a day or two he had been traded after the Wizards chose Real's "closed-envelope" trade offer over the Sounders'. (The incident was not entirely different than the one that resulted in Freddy Adu playing for DC United, who had traded an allocation to the Dallas Burn in exchange for the No. 1 pick in the 2003 SuperDraft.)

The lottery rule is probably going to be tested again in the relatively near future when Sheanon Williams officially enters the fold. The U.S. U-20 player has signed a developmental contract with the league and is reportedly training with Salt Lake, but has not been assigned to a team.

There have been similar confusion among fans when it comes to DESIGNATED PLAYERS.  

B) DESIGNATED PLAYER 
The Designated Player Rule allows the League to sign players (under the League's single entity system) whose salary will fall outside of the team salary budget and whose cost above the salary budget charge will be the financial responsibility of the club for which they play. A Designated Player's salary budget charge will be capped at $415,000 per annum in 2009, but his actual compensation is higher. Each team initially received one Designated Player slot, and clubs are allowed to trade Designated Player slots. However, no team can have more than two Designated Players. The Designated Player Rule is a three-year initiative that will conclude after the 2009 MLS season when its future will be reviewed.

* Landon Donovan is the only remaining pre-existing high-salaried (grandfathered Designated Player) in the League. He will continue to be grandfathered and will not count as a Designated Player in 2009.

Aside from the fact that the Galaxy actually have an advantage written into the official rules, in 2007 they had a third player, Carlos Ruiz, who had also been grandfathered in. DC United and the New York Red Bull are the only other teams to have more than one Designated Player at the same time, although both acquired their second slots via trade.

Incidents like these, understandably, drive fans crazy. We can argue until we're blue in the face about what rights MLS owes its players, but one thing seems abundantly clear: Whatever compromise is struck during CBA negotiations needs to be more transparent.