By Ridge Mahoney
When it last month outlined its new Designated Player procedures by which players 23 and younger will count for less against a team’s salary cap than a regular DP, the league took another step at favoring foreigners at the expense of domestic products.
Under the new guidelines, which take force next season, a team signing a DP age 20 or younger takes only a $150,000 salary-budget charge rather than the normal $335,000. Players signed age 21-23 count for $200,000. If a team signs a third DP for a younger player, it also avoids the $250,000 “tax” that teams fielding three DPs must pay to teams that don’t.
While this all sounds like a great way to entice younger DPs into the league, the catch is that only players coming to MLS from outside the league are eligible. A player drafted out of college or developed through a team’s academy program cannot receive the younger-DP classification, unless he comes to the league from a foreign team. That’s right; teams can try to bring them back, but not keep them in the first place, with this option.
On a conference call with reporters outlining the process, I asked MLS executive vice president Todd Durbin if it made sense that a player like Juan Agudelo, who came through the Red Bull system to the U.S. national team, wasn’t eligible, while a young foreigner such as Toronto FC’s teenage attacker Joao Plata was. Durbin explained that other programs – such as Generation adidas, by which dozens of young players have signed MLS deals and been acquired by MLS teams – are designed to bring younger players into the league.
This is quite true, and the program has been beneficial to the players, their teams, and the league. Durbin cited the case of Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, who through the GA program has earned a high salary -- $150,000 to $175,000 – without counting against a team’s salary cap. There is one catch, however; a player often graduates out of the GA class long before he signs his next MLS deal. While the league has taken strides to get the top players into the league at an earlier age, most of its mechanisms are geared to selling those players or losing them to free agency rather than offering a competitive salary to keep them.
To me, it’s absurd for the league to encourage and reward more aggressive scouting in Central and South America, or anywhere else outside North America, without a commensurate program in place to keep a superb player spotted by RSL in Arizona, for example, or a rising star such as Agudelo who came through an MLS team’s system. If RSL loves Luis Gil, and in a few years sees enough reason to offer him a DP deal rather than lose him at a young age, why should it not get the same salary break as would a player from the outskirts of Quito or back streets of Belize City?
There is no follow-up DP option to encourage a team to keep a promising young player such as Gonzalez or Brek Shea from bolting overseas. Now, not many draft picks or Homegrown Players are worth the DP minimum of $500,000, but a quick look at the past few seasons reveals cases of top players took off for salaries much less than that. The league also bent and broke its own rules to pay Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson a lot more money than the official “maximum salary” that was in force at the time.
Logically, few teams -- and certainly not the league -- would bid against a Premier League club, even a modest one such as Bolton, to keep Stuart Holden, since EPL salaries are extraordinarily high. When an offer came from Fulham for Clint Dempsey, age 23, the Revs – probably the league tightwad when it comes to player compensation, at least until recently – sold up and took the $4 million, thank you very much. The new DP rules won’t help in cases like these.
Yet the league is also losing very good players to modest leagues far removed from England. Had they been offered a cut-rate DP deal when age 21 or 22, they might have stayed longer, or perhaps indefinitely.
There are grave dangers to stumping up big money for young players, as league discovered with Johnson, pegged at a high salary ($750,000) before leaving Kansas City in 2007 for Fulham in a $6 million deal. He’s been a drifting, wandering, shell of his former self ever since, and last month turned down a deal to come back to MLS despite fizzling out at each stop in Europe.
It’s ironic that the league would adopt new rules by which an American playing overseas, such as USA U-20 standout Josh Gatt, could be drawn back home by a nice salary, but no such incentive can be offered to retain a domestic counterpart of competitive value and franchise identification.
There will always be players who want their shot at Europe or Mexico as soon as possible. Yet each time a team signs a player it discovered and developed to its first-team roster it strengthens that bond between the organization, its competitive operations, and its fan base. If the player gets good enough at a young enough age – which is kind of the whole purpose in a nutshell, isn’t it? – why shouldn’t his club be authorized to reward him handsomely, or at least put in a respectable offer?
Kudos to MLS for tweaking its rules so a team can more easily accommodate the next Fabian Castillo onto its roster. But it’s ludicrous that a team shouldn’t also have the option to lock down a Gil or Agudelo or a player like Perry Kitchen, who won a college title and went pro before he turned 20, if it believes he’s worth some real money.