Major League Soccer's fear of the open market fuels its distorted pay scale
Let’s talk about incentive.
When we discuss Major League Soccer’s roster mechanisms or players signings, contracts or collective bargaining agreements, it usually boils down to incentive. And too often I can’t help but come back to one central issue: Why does MLS so often work to disincentivize things that will only help the league?
This column first used a recent Paul Arriola deal to try to make a point. D.C. United recently paid a significant transfer fee for Arriola, a U.S. men’s national team winger who just had his best season as a professional at Tijuana in Liga MX. Initial reports put Arriola's deal at $1 million in salary, which would have put him at a number few MLS-developed players reach. That kind of number would have highlighted a trend I've written about before, which is that players who come back to the league from overseas often have salary numbers that better reflect the global market.
The reported $1 million number was inaccurate, however, and so it would be unfair to use a comparison between Arriola and Portland's Darlington Nagbe to make the point. The 22-year-old Arriola is going to make an average of $675,000 over the next three years, a number that is equal to some of the top skilled players in MLS, including Nagbe.
Arriola did get to that number faster than many MLS players, and it's a credit, in part, to where he started his career. Would Arriola have reached a number that high, that quickly had he signed a homegrown deal with the LA Galaxy instead of choosing to start his career in Liga MX? Probably not. Playing outside of MLS often helps value, however. We've seen it before when Brek Shea returned from England on a $700,000 deal, and why another World Cup veteran, Alejandro Bedoya, makes $1.2 million. These are not unreasonable numbers for those players. On the global market, those are fair market values. But as I’ve written here in the past, MLS' salary structure often keeps players that stay within the league from reaching true global market value.
There is so much public discussion about wanting to keep players within the league. Just a couple weeks ago at the MLS All-Star Game, commissioner Don Garber talked about his desire to keep players like Jordan Morris within MLS.
Garber also said this: “The question about what players earn is about their market value. So the question isn’t about some internal pressure or external pressure. … If there was a player, an American player, we needed to pay to stay in our league because he was as valuable as [Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore] were when at Roma or at Fulham or Sunderland, then we would do it. So it’s not a passport that determines your salary, it’s your market value.”
I’m not so sure that’s true, and it’s why a player like Cyle Larin will likely have to leave MLS to see a seven-figure pay day despite being the best young goal-scorer MLS has produced in some time. And that’s unique to MLS. Most young players get big contracts when they produce consistently in Europe. They are given incentive to stay.
There is no real incentive for players like Larin or Kellyn Acosta -- or even Jordan Morris -- to stay if more money can be made in Europe in the short- and long-term, even if they return to MLS. The same goes for Homegrown Players in MLS who, like Arriola, can choose between an MLS deal and heading abroad. Arriola left, and within a couple years he was able to reach true market value in MLS. Perhaps Morris, who makes around $250,000 as a Sounders homegrown, would have been a better comparison for Arriola's deal.
So why should players limit their short- and long-term earning potential? The stronger incentive is to sign elsewhere. That has to change.
As long as MLS continues to tamp down its internal market, it is going to seem like a glaring red flag when a good player comes into the league at normal market value. Those players aren't overpaid. They simply look it in a league that rarely shells out market value for the top players it actually produces.
Another outdated roster mechanism
We can also stay within this Arriola deal to see another area in which MLS limits incentive: the discovery process.
Arriola wasn’t on a discovery list, but because the Galaxy held his homegrown rights, D.C. United had to shell out $500,000 to a team that never owned Arriola in order to sign him. That’s a hefty fee, and if D.C. wasn’t in a critical moment for its franchise, it’s one that may have prevented the club from closing the deal for Arriola.
The idea that an MLS club can own the rights to any player it doesn’t actually own is silly. It’s been silly before, like when the Galaxy had to pay the New England Revolution $50,000 for Sebastian Lletget, and it will be silly every single time one club has to pay another for discovery rights.
The discovery process was put into place to try to limit MLS teams from bidding against each other, but it’s naive to pretend that doesn’t already happen. Minnesota United wasn’t the only team trying to trade for Ethan Finlay, and if other teams had not been involved in the process, the price for Finlay would not have been as high. Columbus also took home $400,000-plus for the top spot in the allocation order because multiple teams were competing against each other for the chance to sign Krisztian Nemeth.
This league has evolved to a point where all teams pay someone to run their front office. Why have general managers and technical directors if you don’t let them truly do their jobs?
Why is there a rule in place that limits the incentive for D.C. United to sign Arriola, a player who no doubt makes the team – and the league – better? It makes no sense, yet there are multiple occasions in which I have heard of teams backing off, or nearly backing off, from signing a player due to discovery claims and the headaches they cause.
In a salary-cap league, a bidding war can only go so high. There is no reason for these claims to exist. And MLS teams should not be able to offer a kid a contract as a homegrown after seven months in the academy and then own their rights within the league in perpetuity.
The league has grown up rapidly. The rulebook needs to keep pace. More importantly, MLS needs to start incentivizing teams, GMs and players to make deals that make the league better.
MLS is a better league with Paul Arriola and Cyle Larin and Jordan Morris and Darlington Nagbe in it. It should develop a league where those types of players will want to come and where the stars which teams develop will want to stay.
THE FINAL THIRD
Galaxy struggles continue
The LA Galaxy remains winless under Sigi Schmid, and it’s a sign that the problems run deeper than any coach can solve.
The Galaxy only half-committed to a rebuild philosophy after the departure of Bruce Arena. There were rumblings of lower spending followed by the signing of players like Jermaine Jones and Romain Alessandrini. More recently, the club added Pele van Anholt and Jonathan dos Santos.
The Galaxy was so strong under Arena in part because there was always a vision for the team and its direction. This past year, that vision has been muddled and confused. The Galaxy don’t look like a playoff team, and at some point in the next few months, the organization has to decide what kind of team it wants to be moving forward. Without an identity, the Galaxy will continue to be what it looks like this season: a non-playoff team.
What a crazy few weeks
I was texting with someone in the league this weekend as we watched results roll in on Saturday night, and then saw the movement in the standings. His one text summed it up best: “Going to be crazy down the stretch.”
Things. Are. TIGHT. pic.twitter.com/WmkWRXwLpI
— FourFourTwo USA (@FourFourTwoUSA) August 13, 2017
There is one hell of a race coming together in the Eastern Conference, where Columbus, Atlanta and Montreal look to be fighting for the final two playoff spots. (Orlando and Philadelphia have an outside shot, but both will need help.)
Columbus is going to have to be very strong at home as it has just nine games left to stave off Atlanta and Montreal, both of which have three games in hand on the Crew. The Chicago Fire, meanwhile, has the New York Red Bulls looming over its shoulder and has two massive Eastern Conference games coming in the next week.
In the West, meanwhile, there are three teams tied at the top, and just six points separates seventh-place Vancouver from those top teams – and the Whitecaps have two games in hand.
Hold on to your butts.
Read of the Week