The MLS Expansion: In Focus

Diluting Or Promoting The Talent Pool?

As soccer (that’s what we call it here, get over it) in leagues worldwide continues to gain popularity in America, the leadership of Major League Soccer has been working hard to get its product into as many domestic markets as possible. A league that started out with only 10 teams in its inaugural season two decades ago has now grown to include 22 franchises across the nation, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The 2017 season will see the introduction of two new clubs, Atlanta United and Minnesota United, to the top flight of American soccer, with a third club, Los Angeles FC, already waiting to begin operations in 2018. With the explosion of the beautiful game here in the United States, the question must be asked: Will the addition of new clubs really increase the competitiveness of the league and grow the sport as a whole?

Creating clubs out of nothing means the ownership of the new teams are faced with a unique challenge not shared by their opponents: creating an entirely new squad from scratch. This means that, in addition to all of the players that are already in the league, these new clubs must now not only fill their squads with talent largely outside of MLS, the players they bring in must be able to compete at the MLS level. However, these new clubs are not without resources which they can tap to bring in the necessary talent. Among those resources: International player signings, The Expansion Draft, The Super Draft, and players in the lower tiers of the United States Soccer Federation.

Hold on to your hats, sports fans, because we Americans LOVE to make things complicated….

The increased growth and popularity of soccer within the United States has not been lost on players outside of the country. This has resulted in an ever-growing pool of international talent eager to be part of a rapidly growing league and attracted to the chance to live in the United States (present political climate not withstanding). As of 2016, MLS has allocated 160 roster spots that can be occupied by international players. For American teams, that means any player that is not an American citizen, a green card holder, or a player that has been extended a special exemption by the league, such as a refugee. For teams in Canada (Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and Vancouver Whitecaps), all of the aforementioned criteria applies, but also includes Canadian citizens. However, these clubs also have the obligation to include a minimum number Canadian players on their rosters.

While there is a finite amount of international roster spots within the league, there is no limit to the number of spots that can be obtained by a club. International spots are often used as bargaining chips in player acquisitions. For instance, instead of a club acquiring a player for either another player or a set amount of money, they may offer a lesser amount of money plus an international roster spot which the selling club can use to bring in an additional international player.

The limited number of roster spots, however, is not the only circumstance preventing the flooding of a newly formed team with talent from other leagues. As international players are often considered to be of a higher quality than their domestic counterparts, they also command a higher salary. Because MLS imposes a salary cap on its member clubs, the addition of numerous international players inhibits the ability of the club to fill out the remainder of their roster with talent capable of a certain standard.

To help make this easier on not only expansion clubs, but every club in the league, MLS has provided means of managing the Salary Cap without forfeiting talent. First, each club is allowed two Designated Player spots, with an option of a third for the price of $150,000, which is divided among the clubs who have used two or fewer DP spots. Typically occupied by the best players in the league, the salaries of these players do not count against the Salary cap. While the club is still responsible for paying these players’ salaries from their own pockets, they do not have to worry about the effect said salaries will have on limiting further roster growth. Current Designated Players include the likes of international players such as David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, and Kaka, as well as stars of the United States National Team like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey.

Additionally, per MLS roster rules and regulations, each club is provided $150,000 annually of General Allocation Money (GAM) and $120,000 annually of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) by the league. GAM can be used to sign players from outside of MLS, re-sign existing players, off-set acquisition costs, or reduce the salary of a DP “to a limit of $150,000”. Targeted allocation money, on the other hand, can be used to sign players whose acquisition costs would exceed the team’s salary cap, re-sign players whose current salary would cause the club to exceed the cap, or to buy down the contract of a player that would normally be a DP so that they are confined within the cap. For instance, if a certain player’s salary were $100,000, the club can use $35,000 of TAM to bring the player’s salary under the cap. On top of these uses, teams can also trade TAM or GAM to acquire players.

So if teams can only fill their rosters with a limited amount of foreign talent, they must find ways of bring in players domestically. The league helps in the process as well, holding a special Expansion Draft open only to the newly formed teams. Each of the existing teams is allowed to select 11 players to protect, in addition to players that are automatically protected (i.e. DPs, homegrown players, and international players). The remainder of the players left unprotected are then eligible to be selected by the newly formed teams to help fill out their roster. Up until 2016, each Expansion team was permitted to select 10 players in the draft, with no existing club being required to forfeit more than 2 players. However, beginning this year, each club only selects 5 players and each existing team can only lose one player. Once these players are selected, the teams that selected them have two choices: offer the player a contract, or use them as trade pieces to bring in other players. In one instance this year, Atlanta United selected Toronto FC goalkeeper Clint Irwin, only to trade him right back to Toronto in exchange for Mark Bloom, a player of lesser value than Irwin, plus GAM to make up the difference.

As Americans, we do love our drafts and MLS has plenty of them. On top of the Expansion Draft, Expansion teams also take part in the SuperDraft along with each of the other clubs. The SuperDraft sees a new generation of players freshly out of college enter the league and become assigned to their new professional club as they are selected. The new clubs have the added benefit of being awarded the first picks in the draft and can choose from the cream of the crop. Ultimately, however, this is a move for the club’s future, as these youngsters are unlikely to make an immediate impact.

Finally, club’s also have the option of bring up players from the lower leagues of American soccer. While these players are largely untested at the highest level, many have the potential to make an impact. Time spent in the United Soccer League and the North American Soccer League, both now considered the second tier of U.S. Soccer, can help players develop their skills and unlock previously unrealized potential that can benefit teams in MLS.

So what does all this mean for teams new to MLS trying to build a successful roster? The men who are tasked with putting out a competitive team must find a strategy to assemble the best combination of available resources. Expectations may need to be tempered and the definition of success may need to be viewed through the lens of long term development. The most important thing is to assemble a group of players that are familiar with the league, peppered with a few players capable of moments of magic when called upon.

As MLS expands into newer markets, the popularity of the sport within the country continues to grow. This growth leads to the attraction of talent both internationally and domestically, as well as the fostering of youth talent that can go on to become the next generation of stars here in America. A growing market means more and more resources that, properly used, can facilitate greater quality in the product MLS produces. Instead of diluting the player pool, it in fact strengthens it. So is expanding the league a good idea? Yeah. I think it is.

Jimmy:  @NN_Gooner