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What the new U-22 Initiative could mean for Sounders

Rule gives added flexibility with the potential for big upside.

MLS: MLS Cup Conference Semifinals-Real Salt Lake at Seattle Sounders FC Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

In some ways, the revised CBA was an obvious step backward for MLS fans hoping to see the league make good on its long-made promise to become a “league of choice” in the near future. Most notably, the salary cap is now going up more slowly and the agreement extends two years longer than previously planned.

But in one area, at least, it took a potentially significant step forward.

A year after promising to introduce a new mechanism for signing young, but relatively expensive players, the so-called U-22 Initiative was formally adopted with the new CBA. Although details have not yet been publicly announced, The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal got the scoop:

Essentially, what this new mechanism allows is for teams to spend whatever they want in acquisition costs on players younger than 23 without having to use a Designated Player spot on them, as long as they make less than the maximum budget charge. In 2021, that means the player would likely have to make less than $625,000 a year. That salary limit would climb to around $900,000 in 2027, the year the CBA is now due to expire.

On Friday, we got the first glimpse of how that might look in practice when Atlanta United signed Argentinian midfielder Santiago Sosa for a reported fee of about $6 million. If that name sounds familiar to you, it might be because the Sounders were rumored to be interested in him last winter when they were shopping for Osvaldo Alonso’s replacement. A Sounders source confirmed Sosa was a player they scouted and considered, but the club ultimately decided to sign the older, more experienced and cheaper João Paulo instead.

The Sounders apparently thought Sosa was a bit too expensive — last year, he had a rumored price tag of closer to $10 million — and probably wouldn’t have signed him even if this rule had existed then, but he does serve as a good example of the kind of player who is suddenly more attractive. While spending $6 million on a 21-year-old with just 6 career league appearances is obviously risky, that Atlanta won’t need to use a Designated Player spot on him makes it a much more palatable gamble. If Sosa fails to impress, the only thing Atlanta has risked is losing money, rather than potentially knee-capping their ability to be competitive.

The other beautiful thing about this rule is that it allows teams to be reasonably patient. Even though Sosa is on the older end of the U-22 age limit, Atlanta won’t need to worry about him graduating into a DP spot for four more years. By then, they should have plenty of data with which to make an informed decision.

For a team like the Sounders that has a pretty stellar track record on big-money signings, this rule contains considerable potential. On the high end, the most astute talent evaluators could end up with six players performing at a DP level. That’s obviously a best-case scenario and would require a team to thread the needle of identifying young yet relatively unproven talent far more effectively than MLS teams have done in the past, but it could incentivize scouting younger players.

What’s also encouraging about this rule is that it allows teams to use this mechanism somewhat creatively. Even if a club isn’t interested in spending millions on acquiring young foreign talent, there’s enough flexibility for them to use it to retain promising Homegrown Players or draft picks.

Under previous rules, teams were allotted a relatively small pool of off-cap money from which to pay Homegrown Players and were only able to keep draft picks off the cap as long as they were part of the Generation adidas program or paid less than the veteran minimum.

I suspect this is likely a fringe use of the mechanism, but it’s easy enough to imagine the Sounders using it to pay the next Jordan Morris or Cristian Roldan rather than needing to use Targeted Allocation Money. At the very least, it gives teams added flexibility in retaining promising young players without having to pull money from the budget that would otherwise be used on veterans.

None of this leads me to believe that the U-22 initiative will be transformative in the short term, but it is an encouraging step forward both in the league’s willingness to find inventive ways to loosen the purse strings and to allow teams flexibility in how to use that money.

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