Major League Soccer changed last week in a big way.
Three major developments in just a few days represent the next major step in the progression of the league from 1996 novelty to 2020 major sports entity. Everyone is talking about them, but there are some key points still hovering beneath the surface.
MLS finally opens the floodgates for U.S. internationals
If teams want to sign a U.S. national team player and are willing to pay a high enough salary, they can now skip the allocation order.
Don’t want to pay that much every year? That’s OK! Just front-load the contract with a designated player-level salary that first year, and then have the salary taper off to a more affordable level as the contract progresses. (Example: $370,000 for year 1, $270,000 for year 2, etc.)
Until Clint Dempsey’s signing, it was never clear that teams could avoid the allocation process for returning USMNT players by offering a DP-level contract. MLS cited the precedent of Claudio Reyna, the only American player to previously join the league as a designated player. (Freddy Adu joined Philadelphia through the allocation process and was not a DP upon signing, and Landon Donovan predated the DP rule.) But Reyna looked like a one-off case of a player with a pregnant wife wanting to return to his hometown, much like Jeff Parke did prior to this season when the Union acquired him from Seattle at a cut-rate price. Then again, Reyna’s one-off case also looked like a make-it-up-as-you-go rule, and in MLS, that’s another term for “precedent,” much like the DP rule was when David Beckham signed.
If any team should feel wronged, it is the Portland Timbers. Not only did they have the first spot in the allocation order this time around, but they lost the earlier chance to sign Mix Diskerud before this season in part because Diskerud did not feel comfortable with league rules.
Portland had to quietly trade to acquire Diskerud’s rights within MLS. Was he worth the $200,000 salary for a young DP? Definitely.
So why did Portland have to trade for his rights to begin with?
Did they know the Reyna precedent existed? Probably not. Nobody else knew. It’s certainly not in the published league roster rules. It looks like the league office had to figure out a precedent to justify Dempsey going to Seattle outside the allocation process, and Reyna was it.
Then again, the allocation process for returning USMNT players should be eliminated anyway. Top American players should be allowed to play where they want upon joining MLS. It makes them more likely to come home.
Thanks to the Reyna-Dempsey precedent, it should now be open season in MLS on U.S. national team players.
If Tim Howard wants to return stateside and play close to his hometown of North Brunswick, N.J., Philadelphia or the Red Bulls should feel comfortable knowing they can drop the cash to get him without having to bother with the allocation order.
Oguchi Onyewu? Maybe he is no longer DP level, but he could be for at least his first season for D.C. United, who possess one of the league’s worst back lines and would love to have the hometown guy. Cut the base salary and build in some performance and playing time incentives for his subsequent seasons, and you have the perfect acquisition.
Or if you really want to get excited, how about Terrence Boyd? A healthy Josh Gatt? Joe Corona? Diskerud?
Now, any team willing to drop the cash could theoretically get these young guys ready to make the leap. Not that they would necessarily sign. But each of these players would be worth the young DP price tag of $200,000-plus for their short-term impact and long-term value.
Unfortunately, this wouldn’t apply to Herculez Gomez, who would be a dream signing for Houston, Chivas USA, and most teams in the league. Too bad. That might have brought him home, and he has made clear he wants to come back to MLS for the right price if only Kansas City would surrender his rights.
Bottom line: The market for U.S. national team players has just drastically changed — provided this Reyna-Dempsey precedent truly is a fairly applied precedent.
Team values are increasing
The Columbus Crew just sold for $68 million. Yes, one of the league’s economically weakest clubs, with its bare bones stadium, weak brand name, and small market, fetched $68 million.
To put that sale in perspective, Sporting Kansas City sold for about $20 million in 2006, and the Chicago Fire sold for somewhere above $35 million in 2007. (The rights to New York City FC went for $100 million, and stadium construction costs will probably increase the new owners’ investment.) This clearly bodes well for the league.
What will Houston fetch when AEG finally sells it? Possibly $100 million, with its superior stadium, larger (and more Latino) market, and better team. What would Seattle be worth if sold today? How about the Los Angeles Galaxy?
MLS clubs are not yet on par with the other four major sports in terms of actual team worth. Every NFL, MLB and NBA team is worth more than $200 million. In the NHL, 19 of 30 clubs are worth more than $200 million. The lesser number of games in MLS likely has something to do with them still lagging behind the NBA and NHL, in which clubs play twice the home games that MLS teams do and therefore have increased ticket revenue.
Unlike those leagues, however, there is far bigger growth potential compared to where the league is now, as Anthony Precourt cited when he explained his purchase of Columbus. The league’s television exposure is growing slowly but surely thanks to NBC’s fantastic coverage, and the network’s new contract with the English Premier League could keep that ball rolling.
There is a market demand for good American soccer. If certain MLS ownership groups aren’t capable or willing to spend money to make money, then someone out there can eventually buy the team and do it instead. Yes, we’re looking at you, Philadelphia Union.
The next wave of MLS clubs
MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced Wednesday that the league will expand to 24 teams by 2020. That’s great news. Critics may question going over the 20-team limit that is standard in other nations’ soccer leagues, but this isn’t Europe or South America. It’s the United States (and Canada), and the geography, population and wealth are such that 24 — but no higher — is a good target number.*
If you’re going to peg that announcement to a 2020 deadline, you better already have at least two or three new cities in the bag.
Here are the favorites:
- Orlando looks like a sure thing.
- David Beckham is getting a club somewhere, probably Miami (though he ought to consider San Diego too, even with nearby Tijuana’s success).
- San Antonio should be right there with them. It is now the nation’s seventh largest city, half its population is Latino, it has just one major league sports club (the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs), and the second tier San Antonio Scorpions have been very successful and already have a stadium designed to expand to 18,000.
- St. Louis, Atlanta, the Twin Cities, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Detroit, Charlotte, Ottawa, Sacramento, and Raleigh/Durham should fight it out for the last spot. Each has drawbacks. St. Louis has yet to find an impressive enough ownership group. Atlanta doesn’t adequately support most of its other professional teams, much like Miami. Sacramento is too close to San Jose. The summer heat in Las Vegas and Phoenix is brutal, and the gambling ties should disqualify Vegas. Raleigh/Durham seems like a dark horse to like, with a good local soccer scene and only a hockey team with which to compete.*
A 24-team league works out perfectly for a 34-game schedule. Split the league into two 12-team conferences. Each team plays twice against teams within their conference and once against teams in the other conference.
Alternately, you could go with three divisions, in which each team plays their division rivals twice and all other teams once. That makes a 30-game schedule. But with MLS clubs relying so much on ticket revenue, they are unlikely to give up two home games per year. Finally, a four-division breakdown is also possible, but it doesn’t work out as neatly with scheduling and could be little more than a game of semantics if those four divisions are within two conferences.
Now, about the Union’s latest signing …
The Union’s recent acquisition of Gilberto Souza has been viewed by many Union observers as decidedly underwhelming. It should be.
The team and league have billed him as having “most recently played for Clube Atlético Sorocaba in the Campeonato Paulista, São Paolo’s highest division of professional soccer.”
São Paolo is a state (and city). This is not the national second or third division. Rather, it is basically like playing in the hypothetical Pennsylvania state tournament if it included Philadelphia Union, the Harrisburg City Islanders, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Reading United, Lehigh Valley United Sonic, and whoever else could play their way in. (That’s right, Casa Soccer League players, you too could play against the Union.)
Sure, these tournaments are a bigger deal in Brazil, but they’re still not close to the top level. They typically run from January through April, while the national league runs from May through December, which means you can get guys out of contract from a second division club (like Souza) to play for a lesser team. In the state tourneys, you can have a team like Santos (Neymar’s former team) playing an unknown club like Atlético Sorocaba.
In the end, whether Souza can play will be determined on an MLS field, not based on what his last club was. After all, Felipe was playing in Switzerland’s second division before showing he was a very good midfielder upon joining Montreal. Souza previously played for Atlético Mineiro, which just won the Copa Libertadores, and America Mineiro, who former Union midfielder Fred once played for (and who are, by the way, my favorite club outside the United States, even though they have been weak for decades).
But when you talk about signing a box-to-box midfielder instead of bringing back your popular, capable former captain to add depth at a position for which you have no true depth, then yeah, a guy from Brazil’s backwater likely making the league minimum salary is just a tad bit underwhelming. In fact, I bet some Union fans would find it flat out insulting.
Souza better bring some game.