MLS is considering restricting the third DP slot to under-23 players. The idea, which is a tremendously foolish one, is the product of an American problem.
The National Football League is the dominant football league in the world. Major League Baseball is the dominant baseball league in the world. The National Basketball Association is the dominant basketball league in the world.
For these three sports, among others, the American league is the pinnacle of the sport. Players flock to these leagues from all over the world, just in the hope that they might one day make it. There is no convincing, no need to prise them away from other teams and dreams. America is the be all and all for these sports.
That is very much not the case for soccer. Major League Soccer, the premier domestic league in America, is far from the pinnacle of the global sport. It is not even the most dominant league in the region. That honour belongs to Liga MX of Mexico. While the NFL, NBA and MLB are largely managing national sports, MLS is a part of global sport. This changes everything.
Sadly, no one seems to have told MLS Commissioner, Don Garber. Throughout the recent expansion of MLS, Garber has attempted to span the chasms between American and global sports. Roster designations, salary caps, trades and playoffs are largely an Americanised system — not entirely, but predominantly. But soccer is played in a global manner, and Garber has attempted to attract an American audience used to these idiosyncrasies while not alienating the global audience and proving that MLS can be a globally relevant league.
A recent report from Sam Stejskal in The Athletic helps prove this. Per Stejskal, Garber is strongly considering limiting the third Designated Player slot that allows teams to go above the salary cap for certain individuals. The proposal argues that one of the three DP slots must be occupied by an under-23 player. If all three DPs are over 23, the maximum spend cannot exceed $1.53 million, which is $1 million plus the maximum budget charge that a DP accounts against the cap for in that specific year (in 2019, the maximum salary charge for a DP was $530,000). As you might be able to tell, this will substantially hamper MLS’ teams ability to build globally competitive teams.
The best example to illustrate how this would impact MLS teams is Toronto FC. Their recent great run, especially in 2017, had three DPs: Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. All three were over 23 and their total spending far exceeded the maximum $1.53 million allowed. Toronto would have to replace one of those players with an under-23 or drop them entirely from the squad.
As you can see, this rule will shackle the ability of the organisations willing to invest to build high-quality teams, thus reducing their efficacy on the global stage, especially in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Stejskal’s report claims that Garber wants the league to veer towards a selling league, something that he has curiously distanced the league from in the past. He has reportedly come to the realisation that MLS is at its best when it is acquiring talent and then selling it on, mostly to European clubs. And the best way to encourage teams to sell is to introduce rules that force them to sign younger players who will develop and can then be sold on for profit — it very much feels like the vastly successful Atlanta United model is shaping Garber’s thinking here.
That is all well and good, but is also likely not true. I am sure Garber is keen for the league to embrace the power of selling, but as Stejskal claims, there are other factors at play here, chief among them the desire of the league to ensure that ‘parity’ is king. And this is where the American problem lies within MLS.
American sports pride themselves on parity. It is why they do not have promotion and relegation, such that every team is only a matter of time away from winning the sport’s main prize, it is why salary caps, roster designations, reversed draft orders, and other spending restrictions exist. The point is to level the playing field.
But soccer is not so obsessed with parity. The global sport has come to peace with the richest teams consistently winning. They take a more ruthless approach: commercial success of a club should be rewarded, not restricted. In recent seasons, an MLS elite has formed. The four Conference finalists were four of the five-highest spending teams in the league. The fifth is the LA Galaxy, who have won more MLS Cups than any other organisation in league history and boasted the most dominant dynasty in the last decade as a direct benefactor of the DP rules.
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Garber does not like this. Perhaps more specifically, American sports do not like this. They want pairty. They want all teams to have a fair chance of ultimate victory. They do not want the financial potential of certain organisations to overpower others who are unwilling to invest as heavily. But while rules based on this philosophy are possible in football, baseball and basketball, where America is the pinnacle of the sport and American teams are not even remotely rivalled by other teams and leagues around the world to sign the best players, that is not the case in soccer, which is an inherently un-American and globalised sport.
While Garber may claim that he wants MLS to be a globally competitive league, rivalling the best leagues around the world, especially Liga MX, with a particular eagerness for the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League, the decisions that he makes belie such an apparent stance. If Garber genuinely wants his teams to compete, he would loosen roster restrictions and release greater spending, not restrict. And yet, by changing the third DP slot, he is doing the precise opposite.
The problem, though, is not the change in the rule itself. For some, parity should still be prioritised. And there are fair arguments to be made in favour of that stance. But Garber — and the other MLS owners — will not concede as much. It would mean that the league is settling for being a second-rate league in the global sport, and that is precisely what Garber does not want.
Ultimately, then, he cannot have it both ways. Garber cannot have an Americanised Major League Soccer that is globally competitive. Spanning the chasm between the two is impossible, only Garber has seemingly not yet come to that realisation. It might be time he does.