Behind the MLS talent boost

For the second straight year, MLS has welcomed a good number of exciting players from abroad -- and the league expects more signings within the next few months. In an exclusive interview with Soccer America, MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis explains how the league has altered its approach as it enters its 13th season, which kicks off this weekend.

SOCCER AMERICA: Are you concerned that the rapid rate of expansion - four teams since two teams were lopped off in 2002 and Seattle and Philadelphia on the horizon - is diluting the quality of the product?

IVAN GAZIDIS: We clearly had a banner year in 2007 in terms of the new players that came in. All three league MVP finalists [Luciano Emilio, Juan Pablo Angel & Cuauhtemoc Blanco] were new, half of our teams had either the leading goalscorer or a team MVP be a new signing in 2007.

And that was an expansion year as well, so far from the product going backward, it went forward, and we're expecting the same kind of influx this year. You can never guarantee that we're going to have the extraordinary year we had in 2007, but we feel very good about the new crop of players we are signing.

SA: Only two new Designated Players, Marcelo Gallardo and Claudio Lopez, have been signed so far. Is this what you expected?

Certainly the Designated Players are two very accomplished, high-level players who will elevate not just the level of play through their own performance but will also elevate the level of play of the players around them. I think they're very positive contributions to what is an ongoing process. We're still in a developmental phase and you don't transform any league overnight.

SA: Were you amused that so many rumors spread last year about the league adding a second DP for 2008 when it hadn't been seriously discussed by the Board of Governors?

I would be speculating on the basis of thin air and if I am speculating, than anybody else that tries to do is speculating even more. The truth is we have not evaluated the DP rule. We've really only had a relatively limited experience in 2007 and that's why it was put into place for three years before we review it. We just haven't done that yet.

I don't think we've been able to fully understand the impact it's had on Major League Soccer but I think we'll have a clearer idea by the end of 2008 and will be doing a full review at the end of 2009.

SA: Since teams are free to seek their own potential DPs, when does the league get involved in the process?

The league is involved in all player signings. We're not involved in making tactical decisions for teams as to which players they want to identify, how they want to make up their roster, but we're involved very early on in any serious player discussion. For the most part, the initial point of contact has been with the teams, but we work so closely with our teams that it's really interrelated. You almost can't separate it out.

As soon as they become serious about a signing like that, they get us involved very quietly, because obviously there's a lot of things that can happen between having a mutual interest and getting a contract finalized. And the league is involved in the negotiation of those contracts, so it makes sense to have us involved as soon as possible.

SA: When the DP option was adopted, you pointed out that allocation money and DP money are not to be commingled. Is this still the case?

GAZIDIS: Yes, it is. The DP mechanism is outside of the allocation system. They are two separate systems. Where the two intersect is in the team's salary budget because obviously Designated Players are charged against the salary budget ($415,000), but they are entirely separate.

SA: Yet the use of allocations and allocation money has been significantly revamped, has it not?

GAZIDIS: It used to be we spoke in terms of major and minor allocations, then we went towards the ability to split allocations, and now we've taken the next logical step, and that is to recognize that allocation money is basically fungible, so instead of talking about majors and minors and splits, we now are dealing in terms of allocation dollars.

Let's say you have $200,000 in allocation money and the league gives you an extra $200,000. You now just have $400,000 in allocation money and you can split that in many different ways, subject to a minimum split of $75,000 now. But other than that, you're basically unlimited in the ways you can split it. Instead of having these separate little pockets of allocations, you're basically just managing one pool of money.

SA: What happened to the ranking of allocations, when split allocations dropped to the bottom of the list and there was a pecking order of priority?

GAZIDIS: There is an allocation order that deals with a player coming into the league. It deals with the priority order for teams within the league for that player if there are multiple teams that are interested. But it's no longer what it used to be, which was having each individual allocation banked. Instead, the teams are ranked, and if a team exercises its ranking, it drops down to the bottom.

SA: But isn't the process less transparent and more complicated, since all this money is doled out by the league and spent by the teams without any figures publicized?

GAZIDIS: I think our rules are becoming simpler. It's not as complicated as people believe it is, and it's certainly not as complicated as it used to be, and it's nowhere near as complicated as any of the U.S. sports leagues. It's more complicated than the international soccer system, which basically has no rule. It wouldn't be hard to be more complicated than that.

Most of the complications come in where you have a system that is being managed to a salary budget and the idea behind that is to give every team an opportunity to compete, but you're dealing in an international market. It's not a closed market like the NFL, where all of the talent is basically in the United States and probably isn't going anywhere else. We have these rules of priority to deal with situations where we have multiple teams are interested in the same player.

We don't try to shroud things in secrecy. I know there may be a perception that we do.

SA: And why do you feel it's so important to keep so much data - allocation figures, transfer fees, etc. - private?

GAZIDIS: The one thing we're sensitive about is announcing to the world what our budget is for an individual team or for the league, and the reason that we are is the same reason that no team in soccer anywhere in the world announces its budget, because suddenly every player magically becomes to be as expensive as your budget. That's the only point of sensitivity we have on all of this.

SA: Every team operates under the same salary cap but with allocation money and the DP option is there a greater disparity in salary budgets than in the past?

It's changing with the Designated Players, so we do have variable budgets from team to team. We still believe within MLS we have a very competitive league from top to bottom because of the salary-budget charge, but if you're looking at pure expense, LA with David Beckham is spending more - and the league is spending more - on its payroll than on a team without a designated player. There's a significant disparity in the teams in terms of expenditure. We have not yet experienced any disparity in terms of our level playing field.

SA: A lot of players, many of them American, either left MLS during the winter or bypassed the league entirely to sign with foreign clubs. With more foreign-player slots available, will there be a net loss or gain in talent?

It's difficult to address it in February and March. If you looked at it last year, we had lost [Youri] Djorkaeff, [Juan Pablo] Garcia, [Francisco] Palencia, [Josh] Wolff, [Clint] Dempsey, [Amado] Guevara ... a lot of significant players. We were signing Maykel Galindo and Luciano Emilio and Juan Toja and Carlos Marinelli, etc., etc. It's not possible to make the judgment until you get towards the end of the season.

Last year, most of our signings were made between April and September. They were made much later than the outgoing players. This year, we're actually ahead of where we were last year in terms of incoming signings, but there will be more, as we go through May, June, July, August, and September.

They are a lot of new names here. I'd be lying to you if I said I knew which of these names is going to emerge and how many of them are going to emerge as big-time players in MLS. I do know that we're spending significant money behind it and that our teams, to a team, believe they have significantly improved themselves from last year. The proof will be in the pudding in 2008 but I feel very, very positive about the direction we're heading.

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