I'm delighted to see that Chris Pontius has signed an extension. Inevitably, this brings up questions about his expressed desire to play abroad, perhaps in England, someday. Pontius has made a commitment to the club in re-signing, and I'm guessing he'd like a future in or around the club when he hangs up his boots. He might want to join his brother in the team's front office, or he might want to work his matinee-idol looks to get a job covering DC United games on TV.
The problem is that league rules basically force a player to make a choice in this regard. I think this does a disservice to the player, to the fans, to the clubs, and to the league.
A simple rule change could fix this, opening opportunities for the players, without forcing them to cut all ties to the club and its fans.
Right now, of course, teams can loan out players who might want to get some international experience. However, in practice that seems to work for a few, very short-term, off-season loans for just a handful of the best players, or in loans to USL or NASL clubs, with the rare loan like Orr Barouch's loan this week to an Israeli club side. The reality is few foreign sides are interested in loans from MLS. If they're interested in a budding MLS talent, they insist on a full transfer.
This makes for a tough choice for both team and player. If a team receives a transfer fee, they lose all MLS rights to the player. This is in contrast to the rule that allows teams to hold on to the rights of players who decline offers -- a rule that is meant to tie recent draftees and free agents. That rule exists to prevent players from trying to evade the draft or MLS restrictions on free agents, protecting a team's interest and investment in a player -- and are meant to preserve competitive balance by restricting a player's ability to evade having to play for small-market or weak clubs. That rule also favors the interests of fans who are invested emotionally in a club and its players.
The rules that prohibit teams from negotiating the return of former players have the opposite effect. They have little impact on the competitive balance, but really can hurt fans who want to stay loyal to a club and its players -- especially, when that player really wants to return to the club.
There is, however, no mechanism for teams to maintain a relationship with a player who is mutually interested in retaining that connection. So, if Pontius goes abroad for a few years and then seeks a return to MLS, he will be thrown into either the allocation for national team players, or a weighted lottery. I support MLS' efforts to try and promote competitive parity, but that shouldn't trump all other concerns, especially fan loyalty to players and the players' desire to remain part of an organization.
I propose that the league institute a mechanism which would allow teams to have something like a right of first refusal for former players. If the player is interested in returning to the team, he can negotiate a deal with his old team. If he is not interested in returning to the club, or no deal can be worked out, then he could open up talks with the league and re-enter via allocation or lottery.
This could be an open-ended right for all such players, or it could work like the discovery process where each team has a small list of foreign players it seeks to sign. The difference would be that it wouldn't be tied to teams' records, or first-in-time rules. The league could have something like the NFL's designated "franchise player" system, where the team holds on to a favorite player so long as the team is willing to pay the price. So, a team could designate one or two franchise players to which it would retain right of first refusal. The list could be setup so that it's changeable as circumstances change, or the team could be compelled to make the designation at the time of the transfer or lose the right.
This might seem a meaningless limitation, but someday teams will have a lot more alumni playing abroad than they do now. In fact, as more MLS players start attracting foreign interest, their not being able to return to their old clubs will become a big issue. If a Brian McBride would rather play in Chicago than for his old club, there's no reason to tie him to the old club -- and there would be good reason to use allocation or lottery to foster competitive balance. However, if a Tim Howard wants to return to his old hometown team, the league should make it easier, not harder. DC was already faced with this when Troy Perkins wanted to return to DC, but the Union were able to extort DC into a lopsided trade just to get his rights back.
I really do not see how the current rule serves to benefit the league, because it penalizes players, clubs and fans who simply want to renew their old relationship. It can also be an obstacle that might discourage some players from coming back to MLS. Why treat Perkins, Howard (or, perhaps Pontius someday) differently than McBride or, for that matter, Marcus Tracy? Because of the already existing bond between player, club and fans -- and because the player is trying to renew the bond in a way that might last for decades. The league's rules should promote that bond, instead of putting in rules that just get in the way.
The league should encourage those players to return to the league and to their old club, if that is the player's choice. In Pontius' case, I hope he develops to the point that top foreign clubs would be interested in buying his contract -- but I'd also want the league to make it easier for him to return to DC. Virtually everywhere else, this would not be an issue, as an out-of-contract older player could simply sign with his old club. MLS, however, under current rules, would force him into an allocation to sign with the lowest ranked club wanting his contract, or into a lottery which would leave things to chance.
This is a mistake, as the return of an old fan favorite is always good box office. Changing the rule wouldn't benefit only the rich clubs, or even the best clubs - it would boost all clubs. Besides, a returning player would probably have to discount his services to re-sign with his old club, as opposed to agreeing to a contract without knowing where he will be forced to play. This change would benefit the fans, clubs, the league -- and help players who want to be part of their old club's legacy. It's time to make this change.