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D.C. United’s ‘peak MLS’ trade with Toronto FC might not be so funny

Trading GAM for TAM seems silly, but it might signal some unfortunate news for the Black-and-Red

D.C. United has traded $225,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM) to Toronto FC in exchange for $337,500 in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). This is a real trade that happened today, and the reaction has largely been to mock MLS’s general tendency towards the arcane. No players or draft picks were traded. It’s a currency exchange rather than a trade.

Anyone purporting to declare a winner of the trade is making a wild leap. We don’t have any real handle on the market value of TAM in relation to GAM. We know** the latter is more valuable because there’s less of it, and it can be used in more ways, but declarations of precisely how much more valuable GAM is seem to be nothing more than “guesstimates.” That’s especially true when both kinds of allocation money have expiration dates, and each team has varying needs.

**”Know” might even be a stretch here, but it seems safe to assume that, with teams getting six times as much TAM as GAM as a baseline, the amount of total TAM floating around has surpassed the total GAM. Just as an example, before we get into GAM from transfers and CCL qualification (a small pool), teams got over $20 million more TAM just for existing than they did GAM.

If we apply Matt Doyle’s rough guideline...’s easy to see why United — a team in need of “big fancy new pieces” — would be willing to move some GAM to get more TAM. It’s also easy to see why TFC, who are trying to manage their cap situation to keep a potential MLS dynasty together for as many seasons as possible, could use more GAM.

However, this year MLS changed the game by introducing discretionary TAM. Teams can spend up to $2.8 million of their own money to buy more TAM, and in doing so radically raise their ability to get better immediately. Crucially, though, you can’t trade this dTAM; the only way to get more TAM is to either trade assets away from what you can do within MLS’s rules, or ownership opens up their wallet (thus costing them, but allowing the team to keep their existing assets).

Back in December, we called on United to be enthusiastic about using dTAM. Our reasons were pretty straightforward: we want United to be a better team, and we want the club to embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset local and national perceptions of what comes to mind when you think about D.C. United.

Buying into dTAM to make a big move would be a great step towards continuing the progress we’ve seen in the last 14 or so months. In that time, United has broken ground on a new stadium. Luciano Acosta and Paul Arriola both cost ownership a seven-figure transfer fee. They’ve managed to outmaneuver an Eredivisie club to land a player they were allegedly willing to spend $1 million to sign, and they ended up getting him without paying a fee. They’ve added attacking talent in the midfield, and appear firmly committed to signing more players who have not yet hit their peak.

However, as a team that can only point at that 14 months of expenditure after years of stadium-enforced parsimony, United’s roster needs more work to catch up to the stronger clubs in the league. The choice to trade away GAM to acquire something that could have also been acquired by ownership spending gives us a good reason to be skeptical that the team will make enthusiastic use of this new avenue to improve the team on the field. And make no mistake: the big spenders in MLS will be using their dTAM. The gap between the haves and have-nots in MLS will increase.

TFC, for example, can trade TAM away without arousing suspicion in their fanbase. They have a long track record of being willing to spend big, and there’s no reason to suspect that they will ignore their dTAM. The surprise would be if they didn’t use all of it. United, on the other hand, has gaps in perception as well as roster quality that can’t be bridged by small steps. Personally, I really think United has made a lot of smart moves this offseason, but even with Yamil Asad on the horizon, this team needed to make a big move on top of a series of smart incremental moves. Today’s trade points to that being the case for the next few months.

I’m not trying to say everything is bad; the idea that United is cheap like Philadelphia or New England is demonstrably false. And United just gained over 28% of the initial allotment of TAM every team gets, which in all likelihood is going to be put to good use in the very near future:

And of course, there is still time for United to spend that dTAM. We should all remember the contrast between winter transfer targets (e.g. Jose Ortiz) and the sort of player MLS teams can seriously pursue in the summer (Gary Medel or Wayne Rooney). This could be a situation where the team has a firm plan in place and needs every cent of dTAM ready for one colossal move, and we just have to sit in the dark and wait for it to happen.

It’s just that the above is a narrow possibility, and that an offseason full of commendable, solid moves that don’t necessarily set the heart racing (Asad, if that deal is completed, will go pretty close in that regard) is not really what fans had in mind. Folks want to feel like the move to become a part of MLS’s vanguard is continuing. This trade signals that progress in that regard is, at least for now, slowing down.