For the love of MLS, please start allowing teams to sell players within the league

Teams can send money out of the league to bring in new talent. Why can't they keep money in MLS to find star players new homes?

Imagine a world in which LAFC purchased Cyle Larin from Orlando City for $5 million.

One of the top young strikers in the league, Larin has scored more goals than all but five players in MLS over the past three seasons. Yet, he remains on his rookie contract with Orlando City, a fact that has understandably frustrated Larin and influenced his desire to play in Europe.

But what if Orlando City’s reticence in regards to negotiating a new deal for Larin was solved by an in-market sale? And what if that sale had both kept an MLS-developed star in MLS while also supplementing the pocketbooks of a franchise that needed the financial boost?

In today’s MLS, this type of purchase is not possible. Cash deals within MLS do not exist. All transactions must be in the form of trades, restricted to limited pools of allocation money, draft picks and intra-MLS assets. There is no Manchester United buying Romelu Lukaku from Everton.

Why not? MLS owners should consider a change to those rules. It doesn’t make sense to take these transactions off the table when it benefits the league, small-market owners and the players.

A league source said the conversation has occurred among the MLS Product Strategy Committee, a group of owners that essentially creates the policies that govern competition. But it hasn’t been able to get out of committee.

It hasn’t happened yet because it’s part of a battle that is almost constantly in play for Major League Soccer.

On one hand, MLS wants to be considered among the top leagues in the world. On the other, it hopes to maintain an economy that both dabbles in global soccer and also remains independent. MLS wants to spend money, but not too much. It wants to bring in top talent, but not pay domestic players more than their value. It has created a system of allocation money to keep a healthy chunk of funds within the league and to foster a system of trades and “free agency” without real-dollar competition for players amongst teams that all pay into the same MLS pot. That’s why discovery claims still exist. MLS does not want two teams negotiating against each other to drive up the price.

It’s a system that has kept the league alive for the last two-plus decades, but it’s one that’s starting to face real challenges in the global market. As ownership groups within MLS become more diverse and more ambitious, the consensus is trying to change the status quo. And as much as certain ownership groups want to protect against spending beyond their comfort levels, the balance of power is starting to shift.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Selling players for cash within the league wouldn’t throw off that power structure, however. It’s essentially a cash transfer fee for MLS rights. While owners may look at only one side of the transaction – richer, more aggressive owners have the ability to pay bigger money for the league’s top stars – they would be ignoring a crucial detail: The selling teams have just lined their pockets with income that can be put toward future Designated Players, academy spending, infrastructure and allocation funds. Allowing cash transactions within the league wouldn’t change the rules for teams. In this hypothetical purchase, LAFC still only has three Designated Player slots to fill. Larin’s cap hit would be calculated by both salary and transfer fee, just like any international purchase. And Orlando City would be limited by the same rules that govern any other player sale.

The difference: MLS doesn’t lose a hugely marketable asset like Larin. Just as important, the $5 million LAFC paid for a consistent goal-scorer doesn’t leave the league’s economy. That cash stays within MLS. It fuels another one of its team’s income and ability to buy more star players. The league gets stronger. Larin gets paid and is happier. Everyone wins.

Imagine if Orlando City would have been able to simply pay Sporting Kansas City $1.6 million in cash for Dom Dwyer. SKC would be $650,000 richer in allocation money, MLS would get a $533,333 check and Orlando City wouldn’t be hamstrung by spending all of its allocation money.

There is a fear within MLS, however, that if given the freedom, MLS teams would pay global market value for a domestic player that doesn’t have the “sexy” market appeal Larin has as a star striker.

WHAT IF A TEAM SPENDS $1 MILLION ON A DOMESTIC DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDER?! WHAT IF THEY OVERPAY FOR A NOT-SO-GREAT PLAYER AND MAKE HIM A DP?!  

It’s time to start trusting the front offices. It’s also time to give credit to a knowledgeable fan base that will hold accountable bad general managers who overpay for an unworthy Designated Player, whether it is a domestic deal or an international one.

If a GM overpays for a domestic player, guess what? He should be held accountable by his owner. The league doesn’t have to preemptively determine a GM isn’t good at his job. MLS has grown beyond the point where league rules are determined in part to protect individual decision-makers from making mistakes.

This rule wouldn’t drastically change MLS. There just aren’t enough great players that would demand high prices within the domestic market – not the way MLS sets value, at least. Teams are also inherently limited to three DP slots. Teams can’t spend willy-nilly because DP slots limit high spending.

Allowing cash sales within MLS would grow the league’s economy, it would give teams more flexibility and it would help the league keep top domestic talent at home. It’s a change that would be good for MLS.

Facebook Live Question of the Week

Every Thursday we do a live Q&A on FourFourTwo’s Facebook page. I select one question from that Facebook Live session to expand upon in my Monday column. Come join us this Thursday!

Steven Andrews - What do you think about Bruce Arena’s comments on setting mandates to force MLS teams to play more American players?

The last thing American soccer needs is less competition for its players.

How can we be so short-sighted? How can a coach in one breath talk about the level of competition players get from going to Europe and then advocate for American players to be assured of jobs in MLS?

We can agree that Christian Pulisic was developed in part because he was given the chance to step on the field with the first team. We must also acknowledge, though, that he earned that chance and then had to keep earning it. MLS coaches need to be more willing to put their young Homegrown Players on the field to see what they are capable of against top competition. Those players must also be held accountable for how they perform. They have to keep earning those chances.

Putting in a quota of American players on the field or on a roster in MLS will hurt the league in both the short- and long-term. MLS benefits from increased competition for roster spots. It benefits from better players on the field. American players benefit from that raised level of play, as well.

While there may be fewer Americans starting in MLS and lower percentages of American players in MLS, the sheer number of American soccer players has gone up. They aren’t losing jobs as much as they are struggling to win starting jobs. That’s OK. At some point, American players have to get better and do well enough to win those jobs back. If they can’t, that’s not an issue with the league.

As long as the Pulisics of the world have to fight tooth and nail for a job in the Bundesliga, American players should have to do the same in MLS. Or else what are we really doing?

The Final Third

USL coaching carousel

With the NASL and USL seasons now officially over, there is plenty of movement going on in the lower divisions of American soccer.

Preki was in talks to join Bob Bradley’s staff at LAFC, but he is now set to take the reins of California United, the NASL squad in Orange County, California, per league sources. That team was to be coached by Eric Wynalda, but the former U.S. men’s national team striker’s run for U.S. Soccer president forced a change. The news was first reported by SocTakes.com.

Meanwhile, sources confirm Orlando City B coach Anthony Pulis will be named the head coach of St. Louis FC, replacing Preki.

Alessandro Nesta announced he is leaving Miami FC, and a source indicated Nesta has turned down multiple Serie B approaches and has set his sights on coaching in MLS. Two sources said Miami FC at one point targeted New York Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese to head up its program, but a separate source confirmed San Francisco Deltas coach Marc Dos Santos may now be the frontrunner for the position, as first reported by FourFourTwo USA contributor Jeff Rueter.

Lower-division players

With the NASL in flux and MLS offseason in full force for some teams, players among the lower divisions are starting to see some interest from MLS teams. Chief among them: NASL golden boot winner Stefano Pinho.

Orlando City is among the teams with interest in the Miami FC striker, according to one source with knowledge of the situation. The Brazilian would be the continuation of a trend for Orlando City, which signed left back Victor “PC” Giro away from the Tampa Bay Rowdies after the 2016 season.

Another player who could earn some MLS offers: New York Cosmos left back Ayoze, who drew plenty of interest from MLS last season but was under contract. Ayoze’s contract ended after this season and he could be a solid signing for an MLS squad looking for left back help.

Reads of the Week

If you read this New York Times magazine story on Sam Siatta and PTSD, you’ll love this follow-up from the New York Times.

The former is heartbreaking and frightening. The latter gives some hope that rehabilitation and effort to help our veterans can help save lives.

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