Implications of the Richards Decision for Major League Soccer & Houston

Recite the last name of some of association football's legendary players and their achievements immediately spring to mind. Just mentioning Pelé, Maradona, Eusebio, Puskas, or other luminaries should arouse images--most likely fuzzy and pixelated ones from YouTube--of what made them great and become instantly vivid, incredibly tangible. There are others, however, whose names might be just as influential in the progression of the sport internationally and domestically but their principal accomplishments were made off the field. While this might make them less tangible when being measured against those who have become quick answers to sports bar quizzes owing to their status in the game's lore, their contributions could be considered just as notable.

Internationally, Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman forever made his name the reference when discussing contemporary player transactions in Europe and brought about grander implications for foreign labor across European borders following the 1995 European Court of Justice ruling on his behalf. Domestically, David Beckham lent his name to the rule that allows Major League Soccer clubs to recruit higher priced players whilst keeping them within the league's salary cap structure. Granted, there is more attached to Beckham than the Designated Player Rule (beyond his attachment to a possible cyborg via marriage), but for the game's evolution here this could be his more lasting legacy. Going forward, MLS might need to readdress the parameters within which clubs are allowed to lay claim to and sign Homegrown Players, for reasons that pertain not only to the viability of future SuperDrafts but also to the relationships top division clubs like Houston have with the semi-pro and amateur league teams. Might we be soon referencing the importance of a Richards Rule, and how might that impact Dynamo?

On the face of it, Portland having signed Brent Richards as its first Homegrown Player ahead of this year's SuperDraft appeared slightly at odds with the rules. As addressed here the ability for Timbers to lay claim to him, thus removing the player from eligibility for 2012 draft consideration, looked to have violated rules currently in place. Following the trail of crumbs deeper into the forest here revealed the many-tentacled associations that permitted Richards to officially become a part of Portland's organization and suggests what transpired was most likely a one-off scenario owing to the Cascadia club's recent promotion as an MLS side. On the whole, we are advised the league evaluates claims to Homegrown Players on per case basis, and there are exceptions to the current rules occurring more often than are possibly recognized. Further, as Richards did not project to be a high pick in the upcoming draft, him being plucked now by Timbers amounts to little with regard to the remaining talent on offer.

So, much ado about nothing, right?

Perhaps, but one of the principal ties that bound Portland to Richards and made this deal sealed was the association with the Premier Development League. As Merritt Paulson admitted, Richards's tenure with the Portland Timbers PDL team alone did not guarantee acceptance by the league, but it certainly did no harm. The relationship appears more salient when compared with what United Soccer Leagues club Orlando City SC has been doing to catch Don Garber's eye when the league decides the location of its 20th franchise. To solidify their position as a promotion candidate, the Florida club purchased a PDL team of their own in Central Florida Kraze . On top of saving the team's fans from having to cheer for a side with a slightly silly, misspelled concept of a nickname by purchasing them and rebranding them as Orlando City U-23, Orlando City bought themselves a closer relationship with the Premier Development League on the road to becoming potentially MLS-worthy.

It seems strange a small club would purchase an interest in an even smaller club to bolster their MLS candidacy were they not aware that a future path to legitimacy and viability in the top division rested down this avenue. Further, it appears unlikely a club like Chicago--which has already established deep links to both the PDL and National Premier Soccer League--would only bristle at the Richards decision and not make more of a stink over rejected claims to several players they might have rights to in a similar fashion as Portland had in this matter. One might imagine that were Chicago to make a fresh claim for a Homegrown Player with organizational ties similar to the one Portland had with Richards, MLS could have a problem on its hands were that claim tossed out.

What this suggests, then, is that clubs with legitimate organizational ties to PDL or NPSL teams going forward might have greater leverage over securing the services of young talent in opposition to a SuperDraft. If MLS approves of Homegrown allocations such as in the Richards decision, based at least partially on the player's association with a PDL team, it would seem to behoove other clubs to follow the precedent now set by Portland and the one being cultivated by Orlando City SC--as well as Chicago well before either of them--to strengthen any tenuous bonds with the lower divisions by absorbing these teams and have them run parallel with the academies to argue their claims to player rights ownership more vociferously.

In relation to Houston, this off-season a personnel link was created between them and the reborn Austin Aztex of the Premier Development League. When Austin begins play this summer, they will be coached by Paul Dalglish, former Dynamo player and current head of the club's Central Texas Dynamo Juniors program. As Dalglish balances both tasks, identifying local players to develop for possible Academy recruitment as well as those to fill his Aztex squad, he will be well placed to assist Houston in discovering talent in the Texas capital and possibly serve as a primary link that finds the PDL side become an extension of Dynamo's recruitment schemes. Should there be gold found in them thar hills, might Houston place a bid for Austin Aztex to become a Dynamo U-23 team in order to have first right of refusal for any talent unearthed? If there is no further clarification on the Homegrown rule following the Brent Richards claim that narrows such a path in player development and ownership, this could be a future consideration for Chris Canetti & Co. to seriously ponder.

With their Homegrown claim, Portland was able to remove one player that looked likely to have been taken in SuperDraft 2012, in part due to his association with their PDL club. On the eve of the draft, Columbus look to taken another off the big board through their Academy relationship with Ben Speas, a potential Generation adidas talent. Should Major League Soccer wish to keep its draft somewhat relevant in the wake of these ever-evolving ways to lock up young talent, they might want to make a more uniform decision on what constitutes eligibility of acquisition via the Homegrown Player rule. Should they maintain the status quo and consider the merits of each claim by its own unique individual circumstances, the potential for further erosion of the SuperDraft's impact on a club's roster--not to mention an ominous signal to college soccer that talent will not remain within their ranks for any consistent period of time--exists. For Dynamo supporters, they might start having to look more intently at what the club does with strengthening their association in Austin and the Academy rather than scouting out potential picks on draft day.

After all, Brian Ching dipped into the PDL pool, and he didn't turn out too bad did he? What might be the SuperDraft's further loss could become a major gain for Premier Development League teams should MLS clubs invest more there for the next wave of players. That is, unless the league opts to etch the name of Brent Richards into how the administration of player movement is conducted in the future following recent events.

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