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MLS shouldn't play the slots
by Ridge Mahoney, December 20th, 2007 10AM
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There will be more foreign players in MLS next season, as the league has increased the limit per team from seven to eight, and removed the limitations teams can field no more than four senior (25 and older) and three youth internationals. Age designations have been eliminated.

With many good American players heading overseas each year instead of signing with MLS, league officials and many coaches fear a fairly rapid rate of expansion - 13 teams in 2007, 14 teams next season, perhaps 16 teams as soon as 2009 - could markedly deplete the talent pool, and degrade the quality of play.

Just about every pro league in the world mandates a balance of domestic players and imports in some way. Whether it is the non-EU player limits placed on European teams or a strict limit on non-Mexican players in Mexico, the rules apply across the board to all teams, equally.

But only in MLS can teams field more foreign players than their rivals. Allowing teams to trade international slots defeats the purpose of restricting foreign players, and is directly counter to the philosophies of MLS.

A league that has taken great pains to spread parity by a single-entity system and caps on salaries for individuals and teams has ignored one of the most basic principles of soccer competition.

In many pro leagues the rich teams consistently trample their less-monied foes by sheer force of buying power. Those that can buy more usually do. Often the only baseline is a quota on imports.

But in MLS, if Chivas USA wants to field eight Mexican players, plus however many more it can sign by trading for additional slots, it can do so. FCD could load up on South Americans. Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio could open a pipeline from Medellin to the Meadowlands. "Trader Mo" Johnston could invite a slew of British retreads to represent TFC.

An asinine policy, and reminiscent of the NASL days, where many teams loaded up on broken-down has-beens while only a few stocked their rosters intelligently.

I use Johnston only as an example, as he's surely not the only MLS coach to bring aboard an international dud. Coaches know not every import is guaranteed to be a Guillermo Barros Schelotto or Juan Toja or Luciano Emilio or Juan Pablo Angel. In Toronto, Danny Dichio did his part when healthy and Carl Robinson played a solid season.

Yet the new rules certainly offer Johnston greater opportunity to sign Angus MacWelch; if he turns out to be the second cousin of, and no more talented than, Andy Welsh, TFC is headed for another long season.

MLS officials can't justify permitting teams to swap slots, other than to claim that they are -- like allocations and other arbitrary player designations as well as salary-cap relief and draft picks -- are commodities that can be bought, sold, and exchanged. This is wordmongering, pure and simple. Players are transferred, waived, signed as free agents, loaned, etc. everywhere in the world while teams adhere - well most of the time - to rules regarding imports and domestic products.

Allocations are classified as major and minor, and teams are allowed to split them into no more than three portions. Any way a team could split an international slot? I rest my case.

The rules have changed again for Toronto FC, which is like its American counterparts in that it can't afford the best national team players. In addition to the eight international slots, TFC will have two additional places it can use on players who would not count as an international player on a U.S. team's roster: i.e., an American citizen, green-card holder, or an immigrant with refugee status.

Two factors are limiting the ability of MLS teams to sign elite American players: the lure of playing overseas, and the salary cap, which for next season is to be increased only marginally to $2.25 million. Has the league gained anything by encouraging teams to sign cheaper foreign players, assuming they will be willing to play for MLS salaries, rather than Americans? And teams can certainly pay out more to additional international players while squeezing the Americans still further.

Critics of the league point to the flood of Americans leaving college to play overseas, yet MLS has bid aggressively, by its standards, to sign players like Charlie Davies, the former Boston College striker who signed with Swedish club Hammarby IF instead of taking an MLS offer valued at more than $1 million over five seasons. He wanted a greater challenge and environment than MLS could offer, regardless of the money.

"I've always watched European soccer and loved it; loved the atmosphere, loved the culture," says Davies, who hit a hat trick in Hammarby's final league game in late October. "It's just the best thing for me to get better. The competition, the style, it's everything I looked forward to doing, so it was an easy choice for me. I just think it's worked out the best."

And splashing out big cash for a young player, of any nationality, can backfire. A rich contract for Kansas City forward Eddie Johnson yielded two mediocre seasons (one marred by injury) of listless play before he got back on the beam by scoring 16 goals in 2007. He turned down a move to Derby, even though the club agreed to pay the $3.6 million fee stipulated in Johnson's contract as sufficient to trigger a transfer.

Logic dictates if teams have more slots available for foreign players, who normally cost more than domestic players, and sign more of them, less money will be available for Americans, many of whom - even those on the regular, 18-man roster - earn the league minimum ($32,000 in 2008) or close to it. MLS contentions that the new international guidelines don't impact American players don't ring true.

To borrow a tired old chestnut from TV Land, when it comes to MLS teams and international players, eight is enough.

  1. Jorge Rivera
    commented on: December 30, 2007 at 5:41 p.m.
    Mr. Mahoney, I believe you are mixing two different subjects: nationals vs. foreign balance, and slot trading On the first, you already brought the answers to why top US soccer talent leave MLS: and they have little to do with MLS management European leagues are more appealing to the best players of every country in the world, (not just the US) Period. This is not something MLS can do anythig about; the dream of every great soccer player is to play for Real Madrid, Manchester United and those; and you don't get there coming from Utah or Toronto, at least not for the foreseable future... You are right, Salary cap is also a reason; but, we can't compare a league with 16k average attendance here, with Europeans with 30k+; those leagues can afford better players. One last on money: a player in Europe would make 1.5x more US money there, with current Dollar to Euro exchange rate... I believe MLS needs a strong base of international names, just because they come from more developed and more competitve leagues; plus they attract international fan bases in the cities MLS operates On the second; MLS practices are not that far from other professional leagues in the world; and a league still developing, with limited financial resources, and a salary cap, needs to be creative in ways to get talent in. US colleges are rapidly developing good talent, but we are not there yet; all leagues in the world import talent from more developed leagues Thanks for reading this long one.

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