In the midst of the league's favorite rivalry presentation on Sunday night, Seattle v. Portland, the Sounders held a 2-0 lead heading into halftime. One of those goals belonged to Clint Dempsey, the player responsible for perhaps the most significant rewrite of MLS Roster Rules & Regulations last season. A little over a year (and a handful of questionable signings) later, Major League Soccer had another announcement that would be trumpeted by Alexi Lalas.
Jermaine Jones, the 32-year old German-American midfielder, had signed for New England Revolution - their first marquee signing in the modern era. On its own, this would be a triumphant signing for MLS and New England. Instead, Jones' signing was another on a long list of player transactions that are fed through arbitrary league processes and this one, the "blind draw", would be smothered in deserved criticism.
For the last six weeks, Chicago Fire had brought Jones into a conversation with the MLS Front Office about joining the league and a team currently battling for playoff relevancy. Then, around two weeks ago, the Revolution threw their hat in the ring. What followed was negotiations between the league and Jones about how the USMNT International (who has 46 caps to his name) would not have a say in his ultimate destination. This is due to MLS' single-entity business structure that allows them to have more control over player movements and assigning assets. Once the league was able to resolve with Jones' camp, MLS Officials resorted to a blind draw in which an envelope was chosen with the team name that Jermaine would ultimately call home. Despite the initial contacts from Chicago and the lobbying done on their behalf, the drawn team was New England.
These events also took place outside of the "Allocation Order", a MLS mechanism that arranges all teams in line to receive incoming US Internationals. Should the top team not have a need or the capability (cap space, owner support, etc.) to sign the incoming player, they "pass" and the number two team can elect to sign. This process theoretically repeats until a team steps up but, most commonly, a team that identifies a need for that player will trade up with the top team to ensure a signing. This was the process that Houston followed to sign the incoming DaMarcus Beasley (who has 120 national caps), necessitating sending key midfielder Warren Creavalle to Toronto FC in exchange for the top allocation spot.
If it's not quite clear why Houston had to abide by the Allocation Order (and lose an important player in the process) while New England and Chicago bypassed it for another archaic mechanism, then you're certainly not alone. Since the signing of Clint Dempsey, which circumvented the top-of-the-Order Portland Timbers (isn't that fitting?), the rules around "Allocation" have been muddled with practically every signing. That transfer also signaled a new, opaque asterisk to the MLS Rules & Regulations:
*Designated Players of a certain threshold – as determined by the League – are not subject to allocation ranking.
That asterisk, and the phrase "certain threshold" in particular, gives MLS the freedom and flexibility to essentially do as they wish with incoming players. Pay Dempsey's $9m transfer fee? Sure. Allow Michael Bradley to bypass the Order? Speculation pointed to his DP status but MLS never verified how the signing was possible. And what about Maurice Edu (allocation, loan, DP), Carlos Bocanegra (allocation, non-DP), Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst (previous MLS rights, non-DPs)? "Certain threshold" gives MLS the ability to dodge these questions publicly.
The Roster Rules appear to be written in pencil and this actually has been acknowledged by Don Garber. In his State of the League address in December 2013, Don said the following:
The mechanism that got Clint Dempsey to Seattle should have been exposed or promoted prior to as opposed to afterwards because we weren't trying to hide anything... I think you'll see going forward that we will have more transparency in our rules. What I will say is that as an emerging league, there are times that we are figuring out those rules as we go along... There could be something that comes up where we say "This is something we need to figure out now..." and that means, as an emerging league, that we have got to have the ability to be flexible and evolve... We are still doing some of this on-the-fly.
Roster Rules have proven cumbersome and difficult for even MLS media to understand. This kind of behind-the-scenes movement is not only unparalleled in world football, but it also provides an aggressive barrier to fan engagement. Individuals that earn their living by reporting on the league are unable to interpret its mechanisms and that directly prevents fans from understanding.
During the State of the League address, Garber does make an effort to understand the fan's plight. He points to other US leagues that are home to large groups of "hardcore" fans that entrench themselves in the rules and inner working of their league. MLS is starting to see these fans pop up and they want to be more transparent.
Unfortunately, MLS has become even more opaque since then. Amid this discussion, Garber discusses Tim Bezbatchenko, former Senior Director of Player Relations and Competitions. In that role, Bezbatchenko handles all player contracts within the league and every transfer transaction incoming and outgoing. Garber highlighted the complexity of these rules and how Bezbatchenko is an expert on how these rules work. Less than a month later, Bezbatchenko would take over the General Manager position for Toronto FC and bring in Michael Bradley, defying the public understanding of Allocation.
In light of the Jermaine Jones saga, the ways that ownership can support the signing of a marquee player must be murky. Why would an MLS owner (Chicago, for example) be willing to invest money and resources to sign a player that they might eventually lose out due to pure luck? Why take risk if you can't calculate any certainty of an outcome? What does it feel like when an owner (Houston's AEG and Gabriel Brener, for example) trades away a highly valued and young midfield product to cut in line while another owner can sign a comparable player without denting their roster?
These scenarios have happened and are happening. The league has protected its power to rewrite and circumvent existing rules to make things happen. While that may be understandable, the process of assigning an asset to a team appears to be kept intentionally hidden, leaving all sorts of conspiracy and criticism rampant. But this endless speculation may soon come to an end.
Every several years, MLS and the Players' Union negotiate on a document called the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The CBA lays the ground rules for how the league operates and the ways players are treated. This includes player movements, salaries, health considerations and much more minute details. The current CBA will expire just weeks before the 2015 season kicks off, making the upcoming offseason the most important moment in league history.
Players have taken note of the rate of MLS expansion, the fees commanded for incoming franchises, the transfer of American products and the salary disparity that is pervasive. Roster rules that don't pass the smell test should no longer get a pass. Teams appear to be positioning themselves for big CBA updates (LA and NY both seem apt to sign big names that defy the current roster structure) and two new expansions (Orlando City and NYCFC) puts pressure on the league Front Office to ensure First Kick goes smoothly.
Whether the two groups (who barely avoided a lockout during the 2010 negotiations) are able to come to terms remains to be seen but players and fans seem ready to finally push MLS into the accountability seen in other sports leagues. If they succeed, American soccer fans might finally get what they've been clamoring for -- transparency.