Discretionary spending: Why MLS has to break its own rules in order to grow

The gap between the spending clubs and frugal clubs could widen if increased TAM becomes optional.

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It’s built into the fabric of Major League Soccer from the third line of the roster and budget guidelines given to teams.

“The league reserves the right at any time to modify the Roster and Budget Guidelines, create exceptions to the Roster and Budget Guidelines, and/or rescind the Roster and Budget Guidelines in the League’s sole and absolute discretion.”

The line is almost comical. ‘Everything we say below can be changed at any time. Good luck.’ It is the most frustrating and beguiling part of MLS. And in some ways, it’s totally understandable.

MLS is changing rapidly. More money is being poured into the league than ever before, by partners – the new six-year, $700 million Adidas deal is proof of that – and owners; at the top end of rosters with Designated Players and on the development side with academy teams. Expansion teams are entering the league with owners ready to spend and expecting to win, and behind the scenes, there is real momentum to shift the power dynamics among ownership groups.

The real way we describe it is, we need to have more incentives for those clubs that make the decision to not go the Designated Player route, but make the decision that they want to invest in their foundations and local communities, to have the incentive to do that.

- Don Garber

For the good of the league, MLS is going to have to apply that third sentence of its roster and budget guidelines to keep up. Two major changes may be on the way.

The first was hinted at by MLS Commissioner Don Garber during a press conference before the MLS All-Star Game. The league has put a cap on the amount any transfer fee can be converted into allocation money – which is, essentially, roster budget space – at $650,000. Yet, as some owners invest millions into their academies, that same cap essentially limits the benefit of developing players and selling them. Yes, ownership groups will keep 75 percent of transfer fees, but if only $650,000 of that can be used on the first-team roster (outside of Designated Players), where is the incentive to continue to spend on academies?

Owners are understandably pushing back on the policy, and Garber said change may come.

“I don’t know that ‘push’ is the right way to describe it from our perspective, other than we’re thinking about [the policy] a lot,” Garber said. “The real way we describe it is, we need to have more incentives for those clubs that make the decision to not go the Designated Player route, but make the decision that they want to invest in their foundations and local communities, to have the incentive to do that. And we’re looking at that. And I think it’s fair and reasonable that they would make that request.”

MLS has resisted moving toward becoming a “selling league” with the belief that there is a negative connotation to that moniker. In reality, MLS can only grow if it starts to become a bigger player in the global market, and not just by buying the likes of Miguel Almiron, but also by selling the Kellyn Acosta types. A change in policy to increase that cap or tie it to a percentage of the transfer fee with some limitations would incentivize owners to invest and then to sell. Over time, MLS may finally start to see its players grow the league’s reputation overseas.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Owners are starting to better understand the economics of the current era of the league, but it goes beyond just how to maximize the academy investment. Ownership groups recognize that the influx of Targeted Allocation Money has changed the league and brought it closer to competing with its most important rival: Liga MX. They also know it’s not enough – yet.

MLS general managers and front-office officials have heard since the beginning of the year that TAM might again be increased, from $1.2 million in guarantees to $2 million. That is allocation money with a deadline of four full transfer windows. In other words, it’s considered money already spent for every ownership group, and that forces teams to use the money. The thought behind that: MLS wants every team dealing with the same amount of money, with few exceptions – Designated Players is the biggest, but also, for example, the amounts of General Allocation Money handed out for failing to make the playoffs ($200,000), qualifying for CONCACAF Champions League ($100,000) or selling a player.

That may be about to change.

According to a source, the discussion around injecting that new TAM into the system has included the possibility of an additional discretionary amount of $800,000. So, owners can choose whether to or not to purchase that additional amount of TAM, in similar fashion to how teams can “purchase” a third Designated Player spot.

This is a big deal because we are starting to see change within the league as owners willing to spend continue to push for more money to build their teams. Whereas a move to add more mandatory TAM may have been blocked in the past, the league now appears willing to give more aggressive owners options to invest more on the top end of the rosters.

We have seen the impact of adding TAM players like Francisco Calvo, Jonathan Spector, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Ola Kamara; and in keeping players like Darlington Nagbe, Dom Dwyer and Lee Nguyen in the league. The level of MLS has improved. Now, if a discretionary $800,000 is approved, ownership groups likely willing to spend that additional money – Portland, Seattle, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, LA Galaxy, LAFC, Atlanta United, Orlando City – would start to push other teams to keep up or miss out.

We may like to joke about the constantly-changing rules of MLS, but sometimes change is a good thing. If these two policy changes come about, the product on the field will benefit and so will the fans.

Accam stays in Chicago – for now

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The drama swirling around David Accam has been well-documented.

Chicago’s transfer saga threatened to sink one of the more talented teams in the league, a surprising bonafide MLS Cup contender. That fate may have been avoided this weekend, however.

The Chicago Fire picked up Accam’s 2018 option, a no-brainer that nonetheless guarantees Accam a salary reported to be in the $1 million range next year. That guarantee has at least assuaged Accam’s concern about his immediate future, and the Fire winger told FourFourTwo he is now focused on finishing strong in the 2017 season even as transfer rumors continue to swirl.

Accam said he was “pleased” to be able to stay in Chicago and will put off discussions about his future – including a possible extension – until after the season. Accam, who is enjoying his best ever season in MLS, did not want to discuss specifics of the transfer offers his representation received and said he was “focused on helping us get into the playoffs and challenge for a trophy.”

Accam said he didn’t ask for a transfer, but rather was seeking to “resolve my immediate future.” The 2018 guarantee does that, and for the Fire, it allows the team to move forward without the drama lingering over it. Transfer rumors may persist as the window in most European countries does not close until the end of the month, but with no replacement lined up and the 2018 option picked up, it looks like Accam is set to remain in Chicago for at least the rest of the 2017 season.

It will be difficult for the Fire to find a replacement that can produce as Accam has this season. Despite playing on a Fire team that finished dead last the past two years, Accam has scored 31 goals since the start of 2015 – just one shy of Jozy Altidore and two shy of Dom Dwyer in that same stretch. It’s remarkable production from a winger, and with 12 goals and seven assists this season, Accam is proving what he is capable of when surrounded by more talent. Considering his numbers and the difficulty of finding productive wingers in MLS – just ask the Red Bulls or Portland Timbers – Accam may be one of the most underrated players in MLS.

The question now is whether the Fire will be able to lock Accam up for the long-term, or if the offers bound to come in January will be too much to pass up.

The Final Third

Yoshi to Orlando

As I reported on Friday, Orlando City has signed Yoshi Yotun as a Designated Player with an eye on bringing him in to help Jason Kreis’ midfield.

Yotun can play left back, but he’ll likely line up on the left side of a flat 4-4-2 or on the corner of Kreis’ diamond with Orlando City. He’s a regular at defensive midfield for the Peruvian national team.

Yotun is a distributor, and with a destroyer like Cristian Higuita roaming behind him, the hope is that Yotún will be able to create for an Orlando City team that desperately needs another attacking passer in midfield.

The Lions have won just twice in their last 16 games after a hot start to the season, and they’ve picked up only 12 of a possible 48 points since the start of May. Despite that, with 11 games left in the season, Orlando City is right in the mix for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Lions have to get it turned around soon, and they hope they’ve added the pieces to do so with Dom Dwyer and Yotun.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.