Since we have been, and will continue to, talk about all of the new players that D.C. United might need, we first need a grounding in how the team can acquire players. After discussing all of the various ways that players can be drafted onto a team, we now move on to all of the other ways that teams can acquire players. If you would like to follow along at home, you can read the official MLS Roster Rules yourself.
But before we can talk about the ways that players can be acquired, we need a quick lesson on the composition of MLS rosters. An MLS roster can consist of up to 30 players, up to 20 of whom are considered the "salary budget players." This means that they count against the salary cap, which was $2.81 million dollars in 2012. Clubs may chose to leave roster spots 19 and 20 open and spread that $2.81 million dollars across the 18 other salary budget players.
Roster spots 21 through 30 do not count against the salary cap and are referred to as the "off-budget players." These include all Generation adidas players and homegrown players signed to Generation adidas-esque contracts. Teams can chose to leave spots 29 and 30 open and receive $35,000 in allocation money for each spot. While the team no longer puts that information on its roster page, I believe that D.C. United has done that for at least the past three years.
This season each team started with 8 international spots, one of which is required for each player on the team who is not a permanent resident of the United States. The spots are tradeable, such as when D.C. United received Lionard Pajoy and an international spot for Danny Cruz. Canadian teams are allowed to count both Canadian and US permanent residents as domestic players, while the US based teams must have an international spot for their Canadian players (such as Dejan Jakovic).
Finally, under certain circumstances teams will continue to hold the rights to players transferred outside of MLS, while in other cases those rights are waived. In the simplest terms, if a team loses a player to a free transfer, they retain the rights to that player should they want to come back to MLS. So for example, should Roger Espinoza sign for Wigan Athletic on a free transfer, Sporting Kansas City would retain the right to first refusal should he come back to MLS. The Re-Entry Draft was created specifically to avoid other permutations of this situation, and so going forward there should be less confusion regarding the right of first refusal.
So how, other than drafts, can teams fill their roster spots? Follow me into the weeds.
1. Homegrown Players: Teams are allowed to sign players to their first professional contract as a homegrown player provided that they have spent at least one year in that team's youth development program and as long as they meet "the League’s Homegrown Player criteria." This leaves some wiggle room as each team's academies begin to grow and has resulted in some homegrown claims being rejected. For example, Real Salt Lake tried to sign Nick DeLeon to homegrown player contract, but their claim was rejected due to the fact that DeLeon had not spent enough time in RSL's Arizona academy. Players already identified as homegrown players can maintain that status during college and be signed by that team prior to the draft, such as Ethan White was two years ago.
Other than the MLS SuperDraft, this is the way that United has built its current core of players, and that easily gives it the number one ranking. Bill Hamid, Andy Najar, Ethan White, and Conor Shanosky are the current homegrown players on the roster, and the pipeline looks bright. There are players in the D.C. United Academy with famous names, such as Christian Najar, Denis Najar, and Ian Harkes. There are also players in the Academy with youth national team experience, such as Collin Martin, Jalen Robinson, Marcus Salandy-Defour, Suliaman Dainkeh, and Nigel Robinson.
2. Trade: A trade is something with which all American sports fans should be familiar but is also something that occurs much less frequently in the rest of the soccer world. In MLS players, SuperDraft and Supplemental draft picks, allocation money, allocation rankings, and international player slots can all be traded. United has been very active in trading players recently, receiving Robbie Russell, Danny Cruz, Long Tan, Mike Chabala, and Lionard Pajoy in trades just this year and getting league MVP Dwayne De Rosario in a trade last year. While it lacks the allure of international signings, trading for proven MLS commodities is a solid, if typically unspectacular, way to improve a team.
3. Discovery Signing: The first of two ways to sign players not yet under MLS contract and who is not subject to a lottery or allocation is through the discovery signing process. Each team has a list of 10 players upon which it has discovery claims and they may change the names on that list at any time. From this list each team may sign up to six players each season. If two or more teams have the same player on their lists, the team who first submitted the claim has priority. If a team attempts to sign a player and fails, they retain the right to match the deal if another team attempts to make a discovery claim on that player. Finally, all discovery claims expire at the end of the season.
While all of that sounds complicated, and it is, this is a process that is used all the time. This is the way that teams sign international players who are not signed to designated player contracts and players from the lower leagues in the United States. For United, this is how they signed Emiliano Dudar, LEWIS NEAL, Dejan Jakovic, Rodrigo Brasesco, Danny Allsopp, and a host of other players
4. Designated Player: The designated player rule is fairly simple to understand: it allows teams to acquire up to three players whose salary budget charges exceed the league maximum, which for 2012 was $350,000. There are other ways to pay a player more than $350,000 and not have him be a designated player, but you can find more information about that in the allocation money section below. The team pays the full amount to the player, but their salary cap charge is $350,000. The rule was originally instituted to bring stars into the league who would not only improve the quality of play but who would also have enough start power to bring people into the stands. DPs in this mold are players like David Beckham and Rafa Marquez. However, in 2011 the league changed the designated player rule to allow for young DPs to cost less money against the salary cap, in an attempt to allow teams to take more risks on promising prospects without ruining their salary cap math.
D.C. United has had four designated players over the course of its history: Marcelo Gallardo, Luciano Emilio, Branko Boskovic, and Hamdi Salihi. Much ink has been spilled about them, but suffice it to say that none of them lived up to the hype that comes with a designated player contract while signed to it. Boskovic's best moments were after he reduced his salary and Emilio's best was before he became a DP. But one DP can make all the difference, so this could easily be the number one player acquisition method come next year.
5. Allocation Ranking: The allocation ranking is similar to the waiver draft order: reverse order from the previous season's results. For example, next season's order would have D.C. United ranked in the 17th position, only higher than the Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy. However, it has a much more specific purpose: the allocation ranking is used to determine which team gets the rights to returning US Men's National Team Players or former MLS players who were transferred abroad for a fee. The league has been famously broad with its definition of returning National Team players, with one cap qualifying players such as Luis Robles for the process. Eddie Johnson and Juan Toja are other players who were acquired by the allocation order this season.
D.C. United has one recent foray into the allocation ranking: Charlie Davies. United were able to obtain the rights to sign Davies to a loan due to the allocation ranking; despite the way it ended, it was well worth using their allocation position to sign him. This process comes up less frequently than many of the others, but it gives teams a chance to acquire quality players who are loved for their contributions to the National Team.
However, now is a time for an aside into the realm of the allocation ranking's sibling, allocation money. In addition to leaving roster spots open, allocation money can be obtained by failing to qualify for the playoffs, transferring a player outside of MLS for a fee, being an expansion team, qualifying for Concacaf Champions League, and from the purchase of third DP slots by other teams. This money can be used to sign players new to MLS, to re-sign existing MLS players, or to buy down the contracts of players so that they fit under the salary cap. For example, Dwayne De Rosario makes over $600k, but is not a designated player; D.C. United apparently had enough allocation money to buy down his salary under the $350k salary cap limit.
6. Weighted Lottery: Weighted lotteries are the unexciting cousin of the allocation order; they allow Generation adidas players signed after the SuperDraft and draft-eligible players with whom the league could not previously negotiate a salary to enter the league. Lee Nguyen and Marcus Tracy were the two players acquired by weighted lottery this season, and D.C. United declined to participate in either of these lotteries. I am not sure why Nguyen was made available via weighted lottery rather than allocation ranking, having three times the caps of Luis Robles, but MLS works in mysterious ways.
7. Injury Signings: The least exciting type of signings, these primarily cover player who are acquired to fill emergency holes in a team's roster. Typically, this involves the signing of a league pool goalkeeper when a team otherwise has only one healthy keeper. For example, the LA Galaxy used this process to sign Brian Rowe after they traded Bill Gaudette to the MetroStars and before Josh Saunders came back. Steve Spangler, a league pool goalkeeper, spent some time in training with D.C. United in the fall and could very well sign as the team's third keeper should Andrew Dykstra not return.
If you have made it this far, I congratulate you. If you found any errors in my methods, please feel free to leave them below. In absence of that, I give you homework: what are your favorite methods of acquiring players?