Sporting Kansas City took a chance on Justin Mapp despite his history of injuries. Toronto FC signed Drew Moor to shore up a leaky back line. Houston and Ricardo Clark agreed he should stay put.
Slightly more than a week into the new era of MLS free agency -- the market officially opened Dec. 8 -- those three players have sorted through their options, gone through the process and reached a decision. Granted those options are far from unlimited, and the maximum increase in salary a player can negotiate is 15 percent, but just the novelty of being able to field multiple offers is a change the players appreciate.
“It had its good days and it had difficult days but I think any time you’re wanted by different clubs and when people reach out and let you know they’d like you to join their organization, it’s always a good thing,” said Moor, a veteran of 11 MLS seasons who left Colorado after seven years to head north of the border.
Moor backstopped the Rapids to their only MLS Cup title in 2010 and during a conference call with reporters Wednesday cited TFC’s first playoff appearance in 2015 as a possible springboard to greater accomplishments. He also acknowledged, as had Mapp when he left Montreal, that he’d been offered the opportunity to stay.
“When [technical director] Paul Bravo talked to me at the end of the season, he was very clear he wanted me to be a Colorado Rapids player for life, and that he wanted me to stay there not just as a player but after that as well, when my playing days are finished; hopefully many years from now,” said Moor, 31, and a native of Dallas who started his MLS career with his hometown club and was traded to Colorado after four seasons.
“They made a very attractive offer and that made this process even more difficult but again I think at the end of the day, having gone through the whole process, my wife and I looked at this as a good opportunity to kind of start fresh and to go to a new place.”The motivation of joining a new team and proving himself in a different setting also appealed to Moor, who led Colorado to its championship in his second Rapids' season. “I think when I was traded from Dallas to Colorado that first couple of years I played some of the best football of my career,” said Moor, I think it was because I had to kind of re-focus. It re-invigorated me and I hope this move to Toronto does the same thing and I can play some good football again.”
Moor scored 22 goals and posted seven assists while playing 304 games (291 starts) for FCD and Colorado. His durability is unquestioned: He set a league record for field players by starting and playing every minute of 69 consecutive games, and after that streak ended in 2011, he played every minute of every game in 2012, and was the only field player to do so.
Limited though it is, the free-agent process enables teams to sign experienced players who are proven in MLS without surrendering anything in exchange: players, draft picks, general allocation money or Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). Both Mapp and Moor are 31, but the free-agent thresholds enable any player at least 28 who has played at least eight seasons in the league and is out of contract to test the market.
During negotiations that hammered out the Collective Bargain Agreement that took effect in 2010, players at least 30 years old and with eight years’ of MLS service who were out of contract could opt for the newly created Re-Entry Draft, by which they could receive only a 105 percent increase in salary from the one team that could select them.
The 2015 CBA in effect takes those players, with a younger age limit, out of the Re-Entry mechanism and offers them a form of free agency. Clark, 32, could have shopped around, but unlike Moor and Mapp, chose to stay in Houston, where he has played since Anschutz Entertainment Group moved the team from San Jose prior to the 2006 season.
“Players who have played in this league a long time and have seen and helped the league grow deserve these opportunities,” Mapp said, “especially in the latter stages of their career when they've put in the time and kind of want more of a say in where they want to live, want to play, whatever their case may be. So it was refreshing. But the process was definitely something different.”
The major flaw, aside from a very restrictive financial ceiling, is that the dual requirements of age plus years of service exclude players who sign MLS contracts at a very young age. During negotiations for the 2010 CBA, the case was cited of midfielder Eddie Gaven, who signed at age 16 but after eight seasons would not be eligible for the same opportunities as players a few years older with the same years of service. (He retired in 2013 at age 27 after playing 11 seasons.)
As the league expands its academy development programs and broadens its hunt for Homegrown players, who also don’t count against the salary cap, the ranks of players signed at younger ages will increase. Along with expanded use of TAM, the league has also authorized teams to each spend an additional $125,000 on Homegrown players.
An easy solution would be to drop the age limit and grant free agency to any player that satisfies the years-of-service requirement. A tenure of eight seasons normally entails the signing of at least two contracts (which normally run four years). Under the current system, a player signed at age 18 would be eight-years vested at age 26 but still two years short of free agency and thus probably tied up in a third contract by the time he turns 28.
Since its adoption in 2010, the Re-Entry Draft has triggered a fair amount of movement but most players change teams in Stage 2. In Stage 1, a team must offer a player 105 percent of his latest MLS contract; there is no such condition in Stage 2.
There’s another free-agency restriction as well: each team may sign no more than two players from any free-agent class. So of the original group of 28, TFC and SKC can sign only one more.
In light of the league expanding the use of TAM, which will pump $32 million into player acquisitions during the next two seasons, the players may not be feeling so good about what they extracted out of ownership last March. But they did force open the door of free agency slightly, and like all player-acquisition methods utilized by MLS, teams that utilize the process most efficiently will derive the greatest benefit regardless of conditions or restrictions