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Godfrey's Daily Rant

The MLS Designated Player Rule and Living in the Past

Can Major League Soccer get out from under the shadow of the original NASL, the domestic soccer league that preceded it? Absolutely. But it's going to have to make a clean break from the past.
BY John Godfrey Posted
August 29, 2013
3:06 PM
HAVE YOU READ Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections?

You should read The Corrections.

Everyone should. And when you're done with it, go get his followup novel, Freedom, which may be even better. And then go devour Franzen's most recent piece in The New Yorker, a heartbreaking and brilliantly researched piece about.......ack!

I'm losing my point, and I've barely started. Rants are perilous that way. Focus!

The Corrections!

There's a reason Franzen's 2001 novel won a mantle full of awards, raised a stink on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and is considered one of the great American novels of the 21st century. It's simultaneously intimate and epic; subtle and direct; incredibly focused on the travails of an elderly, conservative Midwestern couple and their three adult children, but also open to wildly disparate interpretations. I've talked to many people about the intricacies of the book, and while we all loved it, none of us have seen eye to eye about what it's truly about, or what the title means, or anything.

I love that about The Corrections.

In my reading, the title is not about financial bubbles or stock market pull backs but rather it is a reference to the lengths we go to avoid repeating the mistakes of the previous generation. The three adult children in the novel—Gary, Chip, and Denise—are so focused on not being like their parents that they end up making unnecessarily poor decisions. They're all so busy looking over their shoulders and dwelling on the past failings of others that they neglect to see the world in front of them.

Sort of like Major League Soccer.

I know, I know: The original North American Soccer League collapsed after 17 seasons, and I have a reasonably good understanding of why and how it happened. Too much revenue tied up in talent costs. The New York Cosmos effect. Poorly vetted and under-committed owners. Competition from the Major Indoor Soccer League. Short shorts. Mullets.

MLS is rightfully determined not to repeat any of these same mistakes, and it has done a remarkable job in doing so. But there comes a point when you have to stop reacting to Mom and Dad and start being your own person. I think that time is now.

Consider the player salary situation in MLS: Why is it so complicated?

The Corrections is 568 pages long. MLS' Roster Rules and Regulations is only slightly shorter.

Here's just one small part of the document:

The Designated Player Rule allows clubs to acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges, with the club bearing financial responsibility for the amount of compensation above each player’s budget charge. Designated Player slots may be used to acquire players new to MLS or to retain current MLS players, subject to League approval.
In 2013, a Designated Player over the age of 23** will carry a salary budget charge of $368,750, unless the player joins his club in the middle of the season, in which case his budget charge will be $175,000.
A Designated Player 20 years old or younger** counts as $150,000 against the club’s salary budget and a Designated Player 21-23 years old counts as $200,000 against the club’s salary budget.
Clubs have the option of “buying down” the budget charge of a Designated Player with allocation money. The reduced charge may not be less than $150,000.
The budget charge for the midseason signing of a young Designated Player (23 years old and younger) is $150,000 and this amount cannot be lowered with allocation funds.
Each club has two Designated Player slots and clubs are allowed to “purchase” a third Designated Player slot for a one-time fee of $150,000 that will be dispersed in the form of allocation money to all clubs that do not have three Designated Players. Clubs will not have to buy the third DP roster slot to accommodate Designated Players 23 years old and younger.
Designated Player slots are not tradable.
** Age of player is determined by year (not date) of birth.

Did you get all of that? More to the point: Does MLS really need all of that?

It seems to me that if you want to increase the talent level of your league and compete in a global market for players who are being offered a lot more money elsewhere, there are easier ways to do it. How about simply raising the team salary cap from its current $2.95 million per year to something a little more reasonable? Say, $15 million. Or even $20 million.

That way you can give the audience what it wants—a higher-quality product on the field—in a transparent and straightforward fashion.

(Detroit Tigers catcher Alex Avila makes $2.95 million a year, by the way. He's batting .198.)

Robert Kraft might not like this approach because it will force him to spend more and work harder to compete, but hey—how many MLS fans like Robert Kraft? If he doesn't want to invest in a reasonable soccer stadium or a team that attracts big crowds, he can sell the New England Revolution to somebody with a vision for the team's future. And then Kraft could spend more time playing golf with Tom Brady.

If, as MLS Commissioner Don Garber has indicated, the league intends to be among the world's best by the year 2022, it's not going to get there via Byzantine Designated Player rules or excessive limitations on player movement or minimum player salaries that pay barista wages.

I know I'm oversimplifying things here. (It's a rant—remember?) But I also know that MLS tends to overcomplicate things by worrying about the old NASL and how they got so much so wrong.

You turn 18 next year, Major League Soccer. You're all grown up now. The training wheels are starting to look silly. Just ride the damn bike.

John Godfrey is the founder and editor in chief of American Soccer Now.

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