One of the main stories of this upcoming Major League Soccer offseason is already the renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between MLS and the MLS Players Union. Many issues are sure to be debated and changed before final agreement is made, but here are the top 5 changes I'd like to see before the start of next season.
1. Make Designated Player (DP) slots tradable assets. Right now, MLS allows each team three DP slots (OK, technically each team gets two DP slots and can purchase a third), but they are not tradable. Here's the applicable language from the MLS Roster Rules and Regulations:
- Each club has two Designated Player slots and clubs are allowed to "purchase" a third Designated Player slot for a one-time fee of $150,000 that will be dispersed in the form of allocation money to all clubs that do not have three Designated Players. Clubs will not have to buy the third DP roster slot to accommodate Designated Players 23 years old and younger.
- Designated Player slots are not tradable.
Many teams, such as D.C. United, don't use all three of their DP slots because they either don't have the means to pay three DP players or they choose to use their money differently. But, if a team doesn't use all its DP slots, it can't trade those unused slots to another team, and thus it is a worthless asset. Instead, let's make the DP slots tradable assets. Along with this change, teams would be authorized to trade for additional DP slots if they have used all three of their own slots. Under this scenario, if D.C. United can't use all their slots, they can choose whether to trade the slot to a team who wants to fund (and can afford to fund) more than their three allotted DP slots. In return, D.C. United could receive allocation money, players, draft picks, cash to improve their youth academy, coaches, bags of balls, a new churro machine, you name it. The key, however, is D.C. United (and other lower-income teams) could turn their unused (and currently worthless) DP slots into tangible assets they can trade for something they value as they see fit (with MLS HQ oversight of course (let's not engage in crazy talk here)), while allowing higher-income teams the opportunity to stockpile more than three DP players. In the end, more DPs would enter the league, teams could play to their player-acquisition strengths, and the overall talent level of the league will improve.
2. Raise the MLS salary cap (by a lot). The MLS salary cap will go up, because it does every time MLS renegotiates the CBA. Plus, this time MLS has a hefty (relatively speaking) new TV contract, and it will have to face the lasting effects of the monster contracts it has signed over the last few years to bring Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Kaka, Frank Lampard, and others to MLS. It will be laughable for MLS to cry poverty in the wake of these signings. The salary cap will go up from 2014's $3.1M level (this number has so many caveats as to be almost comical, but it is the stated number). It needs to go up a lot. And it will continue to go up substantially over the life of the CBA, and this means better talent will be attracted to MLS. It should probably go up to ~$4M per year right out of the box (a 30% increase), and then continue to rise substantially (i.e. double-digit percentage increases) each year of the new CBA.
3. Raise the MLS minimum salary (by a lot). One of the oft-discussed ironies of the global sports landscape is America, a country known around the world for its unapologetic devotion to free markets and capitalism, has sports leagues which eschew such cut-throat "survival of the fittest" instincts in favor of a certain collectivism which seeks to drive parity. Have the worst individual season in MLS history as D.C. United did in 2013, and MLS hands you a number of mechanisms (e.g. first pick in the SuperDraft, extra allocation money, first pick in the reentry draft, top spot in the allocation order, etc...) by which you can/should improve. In contrast, Europe is known for a more socialistic approach to its economy, but its soccer leagues have typically been much more laissez-faire, allowing the biggest and richest clubs to get even bigger and richer, while the worst teams are relegated into a lower division. MLS and its single-entity structure is the most collectivist of all American sports league, so I say raise the league's minimum salary (currently at $36,500 or $48,500 depending on what roster spot a player holds) to $75K at the start of the CBA and keep raising it to $100K by the end of the CBA for no other reason than the social good it will do for the lowest paid players. Yes, it may attract better talent to the league, but more importantly it will show the world and North American sports fans that MLS (like every other major North American sports league) pays all its players a wage befitting a "professional".
4. End the allocation process for returning US Men's National Team (USMNT) players. In many ways, MLS did away with the allocation process when Clint Dempsey came back to MLS as a DP and was allowed to go to the Seattle Sounders. Except, MLS didn't actually change the allocation process, they just clarified it didn't apply to USMNT players who signed a DP contract of a certain undetermined amount--except the underlying rule appeared to indeed apply when Maurice Edu was signed as a DP by the Philadelphia Union who had to acquire the #1 slot in the allocation order in a trade with D.C. United. Here's the exact MLS language governing the return of USMNT players, again from the Roster Rules and Regulations:
- The allocation ranking is the mechanism used to determine which MLS club has first priority to acquire a U.S. National Team player who signs with MLS after playing abroad, or a former MLS player who returns to the League after having gone to a club abroad for a transfer fee.*
- *Designated Players of a certain threshold - as determined by the League - are not subject to allocation ranking.
So, let's end the charade and just allow USMNT players to come back as free agents. They can't all go to LA, Seattle, and Portland (pure economics won't allow that), and maybe just maybe, such a rule change would prevent "blind draw" from determining the playing location of an accomplished player such as Jermaine Jones. It also might have prevented "blind draw" from fundamentally altering the trajectory of the 2014 MLS season (good luck in the Eastern Conference finals, Revs).
5. Make the advantages teams enjoy for developing homegrown players even better. Continuing to incentivize the development of homegrown players is one of the smartest steps MLS can take to improve the overall landscape of US (and Canadian) soccer. For example, let's take the salaries of homegrown players who have played continually for their parent MLS club completely off budget regardless of whether they are on their first or subsequent contracts. MLS HQ knows the economic health of each of its clubs, so it will know how much each team can afford to spend off budget. Additionally, those same homegrown players should be permanently exempt from expansion drafts or other player dispersal mechanisms unless the player's current contract has run out. A team invests to develop their homegrown players, and they should be able to hold onto them as long as those players are continually under contract (BTW, if a homegrown player wants to leave his homegrown team, he can play out his contract and not re-sign--then he should be treated like any other player whose contract has expired). Not only will these changes result in the improvement of MLS academies as teams invest in them to realize the advantages homegrown players bring, but it will also improve overall youth development opportunities across North America.
OK, Don Garber and the MLS Players Union. We are talking to you. You have a lot of difficult issues to work through during the CBA negotiations, and the off season is already packed with numerous activities on the schedule, but we've just solved five issues for you. Now go get it done. In time for the normal start of the MLS 2015 season. Without a lot of drama.
What changes do you think are needed in the next CBA?