A couple of hours before Don Garber took the stage for the MLS state of the league address, and a day before MLS Cup, Major League Soccer made a major change to their byzantine rules. The amount of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) available to each team have been going up consistently since being introduced in the summer of 2015 — yes, it seems like it’s been a lot longer than 2.5 years — and using it intelligently has become a major factor for the construction of any good MLS roster.
The news today is that MLS has approved a massive expansion of how much TAM teams can get their hands on. In addition to the $1.2 million in TAM that each team gets automatically, clubs can now acquire up to $2.8 million more per season. The key difference: teams have to purchase that TAM on a discretionary basis. This rule is in effect for 2018 and 2019, at which point it’s safe to assume MLS will revisit the whole thing. Based on recent trends (TAM was originally started as a $500,000 budget spread evenly across five seasons), it seems safe to assume a further expansion.
In other words, teams can put up $2.8 million (or less, or even none, if that’s their preference) of their own money to get that much TAM. This subset of TAM — yes, MLS has once again added a division within their player acquisition mechanisms, so get used to people talking about “DTAM” one they get tired of typing out “discretionary” — can’t be traded, so the teams buying in will be putting the pressure on themselves to spend it. After all, it’s hard to imagine an ownership group being cool with their team’s soccer decision-makers asking for the buy-in and then leaving a couple hundred thousand bucks to rot on the vine.
The possibility exists that a team could take the $1.2 million they’re due in 2018, pull all of their 2019 TAM budget forward (you can get an advance on the whole thing, essentially), and then get the whole $2.8 million discretionary total and find themselves with $5.2 million in TAM, plus whatever they had stashed away previously. To give you an idea of how significant this is, the terms of the 2015 Collective Bargaining Agreement set the 2018 MLS salary budget at $4,035,000. Without even pulling in any of their 2019 TAM, a team could theoretically enter 2018 with virtually double the existing salary budget at their disposal.
This being a D.C. United site, our focus is on what this means for the Black-and-Red. The 2018 season, with both the need to meaningfully improve after a dreadful year and the once-in-a-generation chance to “reset” how the team is perceived locally by moving to Audi Field, carried far more pressure than previous years. This new option to pay into a bigger pool of TAM than ever before is already being defined by the idea that owners who have real ambition will aggressively buy in as soon as they can, while the “happy to be here” segment of MLS clubs will not.
We currently have no idea how much of this new TAM United will make use of. However, given that this is such an important season in terms of acquiring big-time talent and re-establishing United as a team that pushes to win titles, it stands to reason that anything other than a healthy buy-in to this new program would be a big disappointment.
United is fighting a battle that isn’t just about on-field success, after all. The expenditures over the past 13 months — two seven-figure transfers, both of which broke the club’s record for a fee paid to acquire someone — have moved the needle among the fanbase, but nationally there’s still a stubborn tendency to lump United in with the New England Revolutions and Colorado Rapids of the world. Making significant use of the DTAM is principally about improving the team on the field, but it’s also a big chance to make a statement about United’s level of ambition when compared to the rest of MLS.
Make no mistake: reputations count. Fans want to feel like their club is giving their best possible effort to succeed. Homegrown players with options in Europe want to see that the MLS club they grew up with aims to really push for trophies. Transfer targets, particularly the kind that require major outlays, are easier to persuade if they think they’re signing with an ambitious club.
United’s lean years have meant that the idea that the team is low-budget has calcified. The fees paid for Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola,the rumored pursuit of Gary Medel possibly breaking into the eight-figure range and the reports that Zoltan Stieber chose United despite having a contract in hand from a Dutch top flight club, have all chipped away at that idea, but it’s still largely the narrative around this team.
For United to change their stars, they need to continue the kind of behavior that defined the August transfer window. That means making aggressive moves (e.g. honing in on Arriola and making the deal happen no matter how many obstacles were in the way), and it means being able to show the world that it’s not a temporary measure to spark interest only for the opening of Audi Field.
One major step they can make to do that is to use this new discretionary TAM, and not just in small amounts. Spending like the league’s wealthier clubs help United change how they’re perceived, and it will lead to a higher likelihood of better players suiting up and playing games. That’s the best path towards becoming the kind of team that is in the running to win things year in and year out, and it’s also the best path in being seen as that kind of team. After years of having to scratch and claw and make do with less, United needs to make sure both of those things happen.