Less flash, more substance: How latest roster investments transform MLS

Godofredo Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Designated Player rule brought the stars; Targeted Allocation Money is allowing for more retention of talent in MLS.

The dividing line between modern Major League Soccer and the league's old world was drawn a decade ago. That’s when the LA Galaxy convinced David Beckham that Southern California was the place to be.

The signing of the world's most famous soccer player sparked a revolution in MLS that booted open a door to some of the world's most celebrated stars and drew unprecedented attention to the American game, both at home and across the globe.

“For us to keep these quality players in our league, the introduction of TAM was 100 percent necessary.”

- Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson

Greater investment, a stadium boom, a growing and boisterous fan culture, and steady expansion followed as the league grew into something decidedly more major than what had been. MLS had to create the “Beckham rule” to make it happen, and the ensuing Designated Player mechanism ignited a blaze that changed the trajectory of MLS.

Targeted Allocation Money isn't nearly as sexy as all that, but its impact in MLS' evolution could prove even more profound. The program, initiated 19 months ago, is providing the means for clubs to build better, deeper rosters, and it's played a part in the arrivals of Nicolas Lodeiro, Jelle Van Damme, Luciano Acosta and dozens more.

TAM was implemented at midseason in 2015, providing each club with $500,000 through 2019 -- yet-to-play expansion teams Atlanta and Minnesota received $300,000 -- to create space for a class of player the league rarely attracted. It is essentially a tool to fiddle around with the salary cap and “maximum budget charge,” the top salary for non-DPs.

“The introduction of TAM and, by definition, its targeted nature is doing what it set out to do, which is improve roster slots four through seven,” Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez told FourFourTwo. “It's enabled teams to enter a higher end of the global market. It's enabled teams to consider retaining domestic talent that might otherwise have gone off to an international club. And, generally, more money in the system is better.”

Teams could use it in several ways: by paying down a DP's salary figure to open a spot for another DP; for acquiring and signing players whose pay would otherwise eclipse the top mark, $480,625 this year; or, to reward returning players whose values have risen. It, too, is a tradable asset.

Added funds

The impact was immediate. The Portland Timbers paid down Fanendo Adi's DP salary to sign Argentine winger Lucas Melano, who would play a vital role in their MLS Cup triumph. The LA Galaxy brought in Giovani dos Santos by paying down Omar Gonzalez's DP status. Juan Manuel “Burrito” Martinez signed with Real Salt Lake, Nelson Valdez and Roman Torres with Seattle, Gaston Sauro with Columbus.

MLS was so pleased with how it had played out that it added to the pool following the 2015 season, providing each club an additional $800,000 for the coming year with another $800,000 slated for 2017. On the eve of Seattle's MLS Cup triumph last December, this season's figure was boosted to $1.2 million. That's $42.4 million beyond the initial $10.6 million investment.

It's part, Todd Durbin says, of “an evolutionary process.”

“We have a project-strategy committee that spends an enormous amount of time on these types of issues,” said Durbin, MLS' executive vice president of competition and player relations. “We had a very serious conversation about what was the next step in our evolution…

“When we were having those conversations, what we said was we really want to drive product-quality through the middle of the roster.

“Everybody was on board with it. Everybody understood the vision, and everybody understood the need, and then it was just a question of building out the mechanics and the actual dollar amounts. It ended up where it is today.”

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Where is it today?

“It opens up everything ...,” FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo said. “When you look at specifically Targeted Allocation Money, you look at a guy like [young DP signing] Cristian Colmán, per se. A guy that, a long time ago, FC Dallas would never go in that direction. But going that direction, we had the money to spend on him [as a DP], and we were able to fight teams like Gremio, like São Paolo, León from Mexico, Lanús from Argentina.”

Darlington Nagbe, whom Portland was able to retain because of TAM, “previously would either have had to be a DP, or he's underpaid, or he's going overseas to earn money that he feels that he's worth,” noted Gavin Wilkinson, the Timbers' general manager. “For us to keep these quality players in our league, the introduction of TAM was 100 percent necessary.”

'Totally different number'

About half the teams have used TAM to open space to sign another DP. D.C.'s Steve Birnbaum, LA's Gyasi Zardes, and New England's Lee Nguyen followed Nagbe's path.

“It's been useful for us,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. The Sounders have twice paid down a player to open up Designated Player spots. Both times, that player was Osvaldo Alonso.

“[TAM] certainly was useful for us in winning the championship last season,” Lagerwey said. “We would not have been able to do that [otherwise], because Nicolas Lodeiro's signing is only made possible because we're able to convert Alonso into a TAM player and buy him down.”

Nearly two dozen players have arrived this year through TAM, including Brad Guzan to Atlanta and Jonathan Spector to Orlando City. The Galaxy added Jermaine Jones through TAM. The new rule is changing the business.

“Everybody gets the same amount of TAM,” Lagerwey said. “How you spend it is pretty widely varied at this point, but I'll tell you, the other story here is the overall quality of the league really has improved. When the DP rule came in with Beckham, clubs like the Galaxy, like the Sounders had one or two DPs, and that was true for a long time, and now virtually every team in the league has three DPs. And now you're seeing the quality of these guys going up.

“You've certainly got to tip your hat to the ownership and look at the investments being made. We're definitely trying to make big strides to continue to build the quality of the league.”

MLS vs. Liga MX

Becoming the best in CONCACAF has to be the first step to the growth of the league.

- Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey

Among the impetuses toward that aim: MLS’ neighbor to the south.

“When I worked in the league office several years ago, seven or eight years ago, I did this exercise ...,” Rodriguez said. “I listed the top 10 players and the top 10 salaries of players in MLS versus Liga MX -- it wasn't called Liga MX at the time -- and you would take the top 10 guys out of MLS over the top 10 guys out of Mexico ... Once you got past the top two guys on an MLS team, in that next big tranche of players, [Mexico’s players] were better.”

We see it every spring in the CONCACAF Champions League's knockout rounds. It's a gap MLS wants to close.

“Look, people talk in pop culture a lot more about the EPL and some of the European leagues,” Lagerwey said, “but the reality is we're going to spend more time playing teams in our region, and becoming the best in CONCACAF has to be the first step to the growth of the league.

“Right now, the TV numbers reflect that more people watch Liga MX than watch MLS in the United States. We need to put a better product on the field and continue to convert those people into becoming fans of MLS. They're not hugely exclusive things, in my opinion. A lot of these folks are folks who like to watch a lot of soccer, and we have to convince them that MLS is a good product, and then hopefully we'll get them out to the stadium and we'll continue to grow our audience and grow our league.”

Deeper, more talented MLS rosters will help, and how TAM progresses will determine how deep and how talented clubs become. It's doesn't solve everything.

“The top of the rosters are getting better and better,” Philadelphia Union sporting director Earnie Stewart said, “but we need to be concerned about the bottom half of our rosters, because we need to develop players as well ...

“A lot of studies have shown that soccer is a weak-link sport. So you can have a great top half of your roster, but a lot of times the outcome and performances are determined by those players that are on the bottom and what kind of talent they have or do not possess. You have to make sure that's up to par.”

D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper calls TAM “a very good, big step forward” and says he thinks “it's going to end up being comparable [in impact to the DP rule], for sure.”

Lagerwey isn't so sure.

“I think it's more subtle than [the DP's impact],” he said. “I think Beckham, at the time, was transformative ... I suspect there is only one David Beckham. When you think about that transaction, it was a transformative signing for the league in terms of ticket sales and in terms of attention, and so I think that's more on the line of historic events.

“TAM is going to build our depth. It's going to bring more good players, but by definition these are guys that are under the DP salary range, so they're going to be guys who are going to be good, solid, reliable players. And if you get your TAM guys right, it can clearly make your team better.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.

 
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