Not-so-free agents: This MLS rule places even more limits on league's highest-paid stars

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

MLS' fledgling free agency system is supposed to offer freedom of movement for veteran players. But that arcane rulebook is in the way again.

​Each year free agency gets older in MLS, the pool of players eligible grows larger, and this year could bring some of the biggest names in the short history of the pool of players.

Or maybe not.

Designated Players Kei Kamara and Sacha Kljestan are both players who could see their options declined by their respective teams this offseason. Kamara is a high-priced striker who could be on the outs with a New England club where change is expected. Kljestan, meanwhile, reportedly has an option number that jumps significantly in 2018. Kyle Beckerman, meanwhile is out of contract and could be the perfect veteran target for some teams.

For players that make more than the league’s maximum salary budget charge, however, free agency isn’t so simple.

In the free agency section of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, players that make above the maximum budget charge are not “normal” free agents, even under MLS’ restrictions of 28 years of age and eight years of service in the league.

The CBA states that a “[p]layer may be compensated at an amount equal to or less than his declined option price, provided that such compensation is less than the Maximum Salary Budget Charge." It also spells out that "[p]layer may be compensated at an amount less than his declined option price, but greater than the Maximum Salary Budget Charge provided that such amount shall be negotiated between the League and Player. For clarity, even if a Team indicates that it would accept the Player at higher compensation, the negotiation between the League and Player is determinative of the Player’s compensation."

In other words, when a player who makes more than the league’s maximum budget charge becomes a free agent and a team wants to sign him for more than the 2018 max charge of $504,375, the player reverts to drawing up a new contract with the MLS.

USA TODAY Sports

Kei Kamara (USA TODAY Sports)

The problem: Multiple front office sources for MLS teams said the league has not clarified how it will determine whether that new contract represents fair value for the player. League officials also were not available to comment to FourFourTwo this week.

So why is this in place at all?

During CBA negotiations, the league was concerned about any form of free agency. The prospect of megastars hitting the market was even more worrisome. Without this clause, for example, MLS would have no control on whether a team signed a player like Jozy Altidore or Michael Bradley – who could become free agents in two years – to a $5- or $6 million deal, respectively. This clause essentially provides the league a chance to rubber stamp or turn down a multi-million dollar DP contract when free agency hits those big-name players.

The problem is it also impacts lower-level DPs and TAM players, and teams have no precedent off of which to work when it comes to anticipating how the league will react if it offers Kljestan, Kamara or Beckerman contracts that exceed the max budget charge.

Compounding the issue is the fact that teams can’t get a straight answer about what it will mean if they chase one of those three players.

At a time when there is already uncertainty around the amount of Targeted Allocation Money coming into the league, this is causing yet another headache for teams in their offseason preparation.

The Final Third

Friedel in New England

I failed to do a Facebook Live this week due to a dentist appointment that ate up most of my afternoon. In its place I’ll answer my own question: What do you think of New England hiring Brad Friedel?

It’s an interesting hire, and one that comes with some scrutiny. Friedel was a top goalkeeper for a long time. He spent the better part of two decades playing in the Premier League and 13 years as an international goalkeeper for the U.S. men’s national team. He also took the time to earn his UEFA Pro license during his playing career and spent time as head coach of the U.S. Under-19 national team.

Despite all of that playing experience, what Friedel lacks is any true experience as a head coach at the pro level. His time as a head coach at any level is minimal. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not qualified or will fail. Patrick Vieira had only coached Manchester City’s reserves. Coaches like Ben Olsen, Pablo Mastroeni and Jason Kreis jumped straight from first-team rosters to head coaching positions. Veljko Paunović had only coached Serbia’s under-20 team before landing with the Chicago Fire.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Friedel (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

What interests me most about the hire, however, is that there are several capable candidates in the lower divisions in the U.S. that are due an MLS job. As I wrote this week, Giovanni Savarese, James O’Connor and Marc Dos Santos have done plenty to prove they are capable of an MLS job. New England felt like the perfect fit for a lower-division coach to get his first chance.

Friedel is definitely a more recognizable name. It will be interesting to see how much he embraces an MLS job, and how quickly he adapts. He’s got a confident soccer mind and plenty of playing experience. The Revs hope that translates quickly. They have the talent on their roster and plenty of assets to use to get better immediately.

Can Friedel be the coach that gets them there?

New TAM could bring even more money to table

As teams sit and wait for more direction from the league, there is some optimism about just how much new money will be infused into the market.

Selling league?

MLS won't help the USMNT until this key policy is overhauled

As previously reported here, the league is looking at discretionary funding for any new Targeted Allocation Money brought into the league. In other words, owners would choose just how much of the money they are willing to spend. The number previously discussed among league ownership was $800,000 in increased funding. Sources indicate that could fall well short of league plans.

Per multiple team sources, the league is weighing a potential increase of $2 million in Targeted Allocation Money, all of which would be discretionary. This could be a pivotal moment for the league. Already a chasm is forming between the owners willing to spend and those who want to operate on tighter budgets. Right now, that only gives an advantage in regards to Designated Players. A $2 million discretionary fund, if approved, would give those big-spending teams and even bigger advantage over tight-fisted ownership groups.

A pool of $3.2 million in TAM would be substantial, and it also makes sense why the league is considering raising the cap on TAM players to $1.5 million, an increase from the current $1 million, as reported here last month.

While this information is being batted around team circles, there has still been no official word from the league on TAM. It’s a massive frustration for front offices around the league because it limits planning for next season and future years.

Read of the Week

Christian Pulisic pens a column for The Players’ Tribune on the USMNT’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign and the future of U.S. Soccer.

Topics