Wayne Rooney has criticised the MLS trade system, saying that owners abuse it to their own advantage, exploiting players who do not earn as much as other sports. The former D.C. United striker has a point.
Major League Soccer works unlike every other league in world football. Due to its American heritage, the league is organised in an American manner. There is a salary cap, roster designations, playoffs, an unbalanced schedule, conferences, allocation money and limitations on spending on particular players.
Other leagues share some of these characteristics, but there is none that is so unique in its character. And that is without considering the travel demands that players and teams must deal with when partaking in a league that covers all of North America.
One such element that confuses many European-based or South American-based fans is trades. While in the NFL, MLB or NBA, trades are part and parcel of how the league is run and managed, in world football, recruitment is conducted via transfers, free-agent signings, or loan deals. Trades do not really exist. And even when they do, there is one major difference: the contracts.
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The huge disparity between the American transfer system and the rest of the world is that a player’s contract transfers to the new team. They do not sign a new contract with the new team; rather, that team inherits the terms of the previous deal.
In world football, however, whenever a transfer is made, the player(s) must agree to new contracts with the team they will join. That means that they can say ‘no’. If they cannot agree personal terms with the new team, the transfer is not completed and they remain with the former team. For those steeped in American sports, this is a complete contrast to the normal recruitment process.
“I didn’t realize it before, but obviously when I got there, I seen it. My first week, we had a player who, when he finished training, he got told he was getting transferred onto somewhere else. I was like, ‘Why? What’s going on here? Where is he going? What’s going on?’” Rooney said. “I spoke to (D.C. United captain) Steve (Birnbaum) a lot. I was like, ‘Can he do that? Is it that easy to do? Is it that easy to actually move someone on?’ I know it works that way in basketball and in the NFL, but those players get paid millions and millions of pounds. So, they can afford to actually do that, but MLS players can’t.”
NBA: Average salary: $6.2 million (2016-17 season); Highest-paid player: $31 million (LeBron James)
MLB: Average salary: $4.4 million (2016 season); Highest-paid player: $32 million (Clayton Kershaw)
NHL: Average salary: $2.9 million (2015-16 season); Highest-paid player: $14 million (Anze Kopitar, 2016-17 season)
NFL: Average salary: $2.1 million (2015 season); Highest-paid player: $31.25 million (Drew Brees, total 2016 cash)
MLS: Average salary: $308,969 (2016 season); Highest-paid player: $7.2 million (Kaka)
As you can see, the average MLS salary is dwarfed by its American counterpart. To see players shipped off to other teams without any choice is an unfair plight on a league that is meant to be a part of a global sport. Where the NFL, NBA and others are entirely insular leagues with no contact with other leagues or organisations in regards to recruitment and transfers, MLS is a soccer league and it increasingly conducts business in the world of soccer. It must therefore bend to the processes that the sport uses.
As Rooney rightly highlights, then, the trade system is archaic and unfair. It is just another example of how MLS must catch up to leagues from around the world.