I am glad Clint Dempsey is in the league. Let's just get that out of the way. I am happy to have a player of his quality back in the league he left to pursue his fortunes abroad. He's at the technical peak of his career, and rather than slog it out looking for time at Tottenham, he came back to Major League Soccer. I am not going to go into any of the self-loathing where people say he should have stayed in England. No. The product on the field in Major League Soccer is getting better. The competitive balance (at least in the West) is heating up to the point where the League can lay claim to being the most competitive league in the world.
And it's really those two points I wanted to touch on, today. I don't want to foam at the mouth over whether or not Major League Soccer broke the rules or not. The rule that they "broke" (or at least bent, slightly) was a stupid rule to begin with: the Allocation Rule. Rapids fans felt the wrath of that process when the rule cost us young American Conor Doyle, who is making waves over a DC United with a goal and an assist over the weekend.
It's also, reportedly, the major reason Mikkel Diskerud did not sign with the Portland Timbers: because he did not know that he was going to end up with the Timbers--he may have well ended up with the Rapids, for all I know. While I would have been happy with that development, the rule by which we acquired him is still a stupid rule.
And the reason it's stupid is because of how the league has developed. It is becoming a different animal than it was before, an animal which now can say it commands the services of players who require a multi million dollar transfer fee and even more multi of millions in salary. As much as we might lie to ourselves about the Dempsey signing, and this seems to be the tone struck thus far by Major League Soccer, and say "This was a one time thing, totally justifiable according to processes we already have in place." Deep down, I think we all know, players, fans, coaches, front office staff and the administrators in New York: we all know something has changed here.
Thankfully, ladies and gentlemen, the old Bulldog has a suggestion for how to improve the league. And the two points I want everyone to consider is this: developing a good product on the field and maintaining competitive balance.
So here are my solutions, and I'll tell you why they relate to the two points after I just state them straight up:
1) End the Allocation Draft, Waiver Draft, any other Draft that is not the Draft from the College system.
2) Institute Transparency with regards to: Allocation Money, Retention Funds, and all other money reserved for league related spending.
And that's it for now.
There are too many damn drafts, and it's to the point where the draft is inappropriate. Academies have been more or less doing away with the College system, but there are still good players to be had there. And, from what I've heard, the Draft is a "great American sports tradition". Fine then. Let's keep the College Draft, which makes sense at least now in Major League Soccer's development: kids get done with college, and there's a lot of them to be had. They are starting their professional careers, and perhaps they may not have a preference for where they play or where they live. They are at the beginning of an adventure. That's neat to see.
See, the College Draft is really just a draft of a massive class of amateur players into a professional league. They have declared their intent to become professionals, and haven't specified where they would like to ply their trade. That's the purpose of the College Draft in every other sport, and it's uniquely American (because of our college sports system) and it's sometimes quite exciting to watch.
But what about players who are already pros? And it's not like they are "drafted" en masse, like the college draft. What if they've been talking with a club about coming to MLS, and the club expresses interest in them, and wants to sign them. Apparently, that works out just fine, unless the player happens to be American. In this special case, unlike most foreign born players, this American has to go through a draft system and perhaps go to a team that he didn't originally want to go to. Carlos Bocanegra, Benny Feilhaber, and Conor Doyle are all examples of this.
What if instead, they could just sign with one the clubs that they had been talking with before they entered the league? Or, in the case of players who sign with the league before talking with a club, what if clubs, instead of just being awarded the player, instead made him different offers, he got a chance to train with them and see the facilities, and he took the one he liked the most? I believe that is Free Agency, and it's not unheard of in American sports. It's not just about who can pay your salary demands. It's about where you feel most comfortable with your environment. It's about where you feel you can really express yourself and grow as a player and a professional. Where you really think you'll enjoy your football and your life.
I've already talked at length about this, but it's relevant again, because it seems that Major League Soccer has recognized that, in certain cases, it's OK to bend the rule--because it's a stupid rule anyway.
Clint Dempsey signing with Seattle is important because if Major League Soccer does not do away with these crazy rules, it actually risks its competitive balance. How? By bending the rules for teams like Seattle, LA, or NYRB (teams with money to spend and the will to spend it) and not just eliminating the rule which keeps teams hamstrung at least in pursuing professional American players, you throw off the balance and shift it in favor of certain teams as opposed to other ones.
The solution is not to tell teams with small budgets, like Real Salt Lake, Colorado Rapids, and FC Dallas, to go get bent and that "money talks and bullshit walks" like some have been doing. The solution is to let those teams pursue players in their own way, without needing to pay massive transfer fees (or else have the player they want subjected to the draft process). So Colorado gets its Conor Doyle. Portland gets its Mikkel Diskerud. And you know what? Having those kinds of players in the league improves the on field product AND keeps the balance competitive.
The solution isn't to try to make every team in to Los Angeles Galaxy. The solution is give each team a chance to be itself. So teams that want to spend a lot of money to acquire players can do that, and teams that want to use their personal connections to acquire players without a transfer fee can do that too without interference, but rather facilitation, from the league.
Ending the endless draft process, the allocation order, all of that nonsense, when it comes to player acquisition, will go a long way to maintaining competitive balance in the years to come as Major League Soccer grows into a worldwide respected and recognized league.
The first thing that outsiders will tell you when coming to this league from outside is that to look under the hood of the rules and regulations regarding money for league spending is absolutely Byzantine. Now what I've heard is that the reason they keep it so secret is because of those damn sports agents. Those greedy little buggers who only seem to want more and wonder why their client isn't getting more. If they were to see that, say, the Colorado Rapids have still a few thousand dollars off from their Salary Cap, or a couple million in the Retention Fund, they would be wondering why their player wasn't getting some of that fat cash.
That would be terrible, except it happens already. Sports agents, regardless of whether or not they know the clubs "real" financial situation still have to try to get top dollar for their client. What's the harm in just making that information available for fans to see? Major League Soccer is in this unique position to share this information, because it is a single-entity league, which uses its own designated money. Why not just open those pools up? It's not going to show off any private information of any ownership. We're not asking to look in Kroenke's bank balance. We are looking to see, in essence, how much MLS money the Rapids have left to throw around.
It would go a long way toward making the connection between fans, the front office, and the field more transparent. Fans can see more justification for why a player may have been let go, or why so-and-so is only making so-and-so much. This takes competitive balance to a whole new level. Now teams compete out in the open for players. Imagine going to the website of the team you support, and going to a page which tells you exactly what your club has to work with, to the dime. You can see if they are freeing up space for a new player, you can see if they are preparing to make an offer with their retention funds, you can see how they are spending their allocation money... Fun for economics nerds, but also nice to see for the fans.
Think of it like that, Major League Soccer. It's no sweat if every team knows what every other team has, and it's no harm if players know their club's financial situation. It's MLS. Everyone has paid in already. It's not like we have a lurking Portsmouth waiting to pounce.
Look, these are not insane recommendations. I'm not calling for an open market. I'm not calling for the Wild Wild West or for Atlas Shrugged here. You can call for other changes too, if you like. But I'm calling for two simple changes, neither of which are a threat to single-entity but both of which can function in either a single-entity or any other league for that matter. Above all, those two changes increase competitive balance and improve the on-field product as Major League Soccer takes its next steps into MLS 3.0.
So what's it going to be? Is Dempsey's signing just another thing for bitter fans to grumble about? Or is this a sign of the times?