The Morrison Report: Growing Up Edition

In many respects, Seattle’s signing of Clint Dempsey to a four-year, $32 million contract with a reported $9 million transfer fee on top is a sign of significant progress in MLS.  For years, Dempsey – fueled by a sour experience with the League’s structure in his first MLS go-round – has been one of the MLS’s iciest American spokesmen abroad.  Seven years and $41 million dollars after he left MLS, however, and Dempsey has been won over by progress in the League and the Seattle Sounders organization.[1]

While the signing of Dempsey marks another checkpoint on MLS’s path to international competitiveness on the field, it also exposes an institutional immaturity that poses perhaps the greatest obstacle to MLS standing alongside the footballing elite.

The MLS allocation rules provide a clear – if perhaps beef-headed – process for allocating returning former MLS players and U.S. Men’s National Team program players.  Currently, Portland stands first in the allocation order with Seattle sitting second.  As of August 3, 2013, the Allocation Ranking rules published in the Roster Rules provide, in full:

The allocation ranking is the mechanism used to determine which MLS club has first priority to acquire a U.S. National Team player who signs with MLS after playing abroad, or a former MLS player who returns to the League after having gone to a club abroad for a transfer fee. The allocation rankings may also be used in the event two or more clubs file a request for the same player on the same day when the discovery period opens in December. The allocations will be ranked in reverse order of finish for the 2012 season, taking playoff performance into account.

Once the club uses its allocation ranking to acquire a player, it drops to the bottom of the list.  A ranking can be traded, provided that part of the compensation received in return is the other club’s ranking. At all times, each club is assigned one ranking. The rankings reset at the end of each MLS League season.[2]

As a national teamer and former MLS player, Dempsey plainly fits within the class of players allocated through the Allocation Ranking provisions.  Yet, on Saturday, MLS released a statement indicating that the Timbers did not have the first right of refusal on Dempsey because, as a Designated Player, he was not subject to the allocation process.  Citing the signings of David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, and Claudio Reyna,[3] MLS stated publicly for the first time that Designated Players are not subject to the allocation order rules, even if they otherwise qualify.[4]

The problem, however, is that neither the published Allocation Ranking rules nor the Designated Player rules[5] contemplate such an exception.  This is not a matter of ambiguity, as the published Rules are clear that Dempsey is subject to the allocation process.  There is simply no room for reasonable disagreement within the plain language of the provisions.

Rather, it appears the League has withheld important roster rules from public knowledge for reasons that can charitably be described as baffling.[6]  This mindless secrecy, however, is the starkest example to date of a league that is desperately out of touch with its fanbase and its own influence.

The reality in MLS today is that its supporters no longer treat matches merely as a decent way to pass the time on a summer weekend evening.  Across the country, tens of thousands of MLS supporters browse blogs, listen to podcasts, and stalk the internet for transfer rumors on a daily basis.

The product the League is selling is no longer just ninety minutes of soccer, cheap beer, and bobblehead dolls.  Rather, MLS has grown to a point where its product is a year-round sporting experience that includes not only the matches themselves, but also a relationship between the supporters and the League involving everything its clubs do – from on-field performance, to personnel moves, to development academies.

An important part of MLS’s product, then, are the rules and regulations that govern roster transactions, as those rules are an inextricable part of the daily buzz the League ravenously craves, and ultimately are a significant aspect of what shapes supporters’ relationship with their respective clubs and MLS.

In that way, the Roster Rules are part of a sort of informal contract between the League and its supporters.  In exchange for supporters’ time, energy, and money, the Competition and Roster Rules serve as the baseline that guides supporters’ everyday following of the League and their clubs.  It’s understandable, then, that supporters feel duped when the League facilitates transactions that exist not in the grey areas of the Roster Rules,[7] but rather are contrary to the published rules.  Supporters invest a great deal into following and understanding the League, only to have MLS pull the carpet out from under their reasonable, well-informed expectations by invoking unwritten – or at least unpublished – rules at climactic moments.

For supporters, it feels like the difference between following competitive sport, where the playing field is more-or-less level and the drama is authentic, and watching made-for-TV entertainment where the rules, and ultimately outcomes, are subject to the whims of its promoters.  Put another way, it’s the difference between following the Harlem Globetrotters and the NCAA Tournament.  And if MLS chooses to follow the Globetrotters’ model, it will flounder.

There is little incentive for supporters to read the blogs, tune into the podcasts, or peruse the internet when the information and insight they seek can be rendered useless seemingly at the pleasure of the League office.  And in a soccer world with increasingly diverse options, with rapidly expanding access to television broadcasts of foreign leagues, and increasingly infinite sources of web-based information about overseas competition, the withering of such incentive could be devastating to MLS’s upward trajectory.

In a league in which the fans showed up to the gates – or not – just to have a nice Saturday evening, MLS could get away with the shell game that are the current Competition and Roster Rules.  Few knew better, or, even if they did, cared all that much.[8]

But that’s not the state of support in MLS today.  And if the League continues on its current path of keeping supporters in the dark and insulting their intelligence with patronizingly worded press releases explaining their most recent riff on the Roster Rules,[9] it may again be the state of MLS support tomorrow.

It’s time for MLS to grow up.

Onward, Rose City.


[1] In the post-Deuce media hysteria, there’s been almost no discussion about Seattle’s payment of a massive price for Dempsey.  His reported $41 million total price tag, including $8 million in annual wages for four years, if true, is much more than what he would have commanded in Europe.  Consider that Dempsey’s transfer bill in 2012, at the height of his value after logging 17 goals and 6 assists for Fulham, was approximately $9.5 million.  While he didn’t exactly languish at Spurs, his seven goals in 22 appearances and the passage of his 30th birthday have deflated his value somewhat.  The move makes a lot of sense for Seattle – as it would have for Portland – but that doesn’t change the fact that they paid a sizable premium.

[2] 2013 MLS Player Rules and Regulations § II(A), available at http://pressbox.mlssoccer.com/content/roster-rules-and-regulations (last visited August 3, 2013).

[3] The signings of Henry, Beckham, and Keane – curiously cited by MLS in its statement – are insultingly distinguishable from Dempsey’s transfer, as those players were obviously neither part of the U.S. National Team nor former MLS players.  The allocation order is therefore inapplicable to their entry into MLS.  Reyna’s signing, however, appears at first blush to be precedent for the Dempsey affair because he came to the League in the first year of the Designated Player rule and may have qualified as a U.S. National Team player within the meaning of the allocation order rules.  Reyna, however, had retired from the national team before he signed with MLS, and the Rules speak of a U.S. National Team player in the present tense.  Whether the allocation order applies to retired U.S. National Team players is an open question, as it is unclear on which ground Reyna avoided the allocation order.  Interestingly, no story that I could find about Reyna’s signing even mentioned the allocation order issue.  Thus, even if Reyna’s signing is precedential, the lack of commentary on this major exception to the allocation order process is indicative of the much greater supporter and media interest in roster rules today.  See, e.g., Big Apple Soccer, Coming Home: Ex-U.S. Captain Agrees to Join Red Bulls, available at http://www.bigapplesoccer.com/article.php?article_id=8448 (last visited August 4, 2013).

[4] Though Dempsey’s signing, along with recent near misses in Freddy Adu, Carlos Bocanegra, and Mix Diskerud, suggest that the circumstance of National Team players signing as Designated Players may arise more frequently in the future.

[5] See 2013 MLS Player Rules and Regulations § II(B).

[6] Reyna’s potential precedential value notwithstanding, I assume these rules are written somewhere and the clubs are aware of them, as the League selectively choosing to waive the Roster Rules in favor of particular teams or players would almost certainly violate clubs’ franchise agreements.  Considering the tens of millions of dollars the League extracts in consideration for these franchise agreements, such selective application of the rules could potentially lead to legal action by aggrieved clubs against MLS.  The league office may be shortsighted, but it’s hard to believe they’re that foolish.

[7] Reyna’s status as a National Team player is a good example of a situation in which a transaction would lay in the grey areas of the Roster Rules.  Whether Reyna was subject to the Allocation Ranking provisions is not clear on the face of the Rules.

[8] As the apparent lack of discussion about the allocation order upon Reyna’s signing suggests.

[9] The insult of citing Beckham, Henry, and Keane in a statement about the relationship between Designated Players and the allocation order is worthy of particular emphasis.

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22 Responses to The Morrison Report: Growing Up Edition

  1. Shrekpdx says:

    This also doesn’t start the explanation of the new retention funds, the ever mysterious allocation money, as well as the ability to restructure Joseph’s DP midway through the season.

  2. Mike says:

    How was your fake hgp following the rules?

    • Matt says:

      First off, clarify.

      Second, if he’s not following the rules, then I’m guessing you agree with the vast majority of the above post, as it simply reinforces the fact that the rules all around are pretty well ignored on a whim.

      • Dennis says:

        I think they are referring to Brent Richards being counted as a HGP even though he came through or was in the system before the Timbers were in MLS. That’s my understanding, anyway.

        Even assuming that’s true, that in no way makes what happened with Dempsey OK. Two rules violations bolsters the case that MLS is treating their fans like shit. It doesn’t undermine it.

  3. johnW says:

    I have the same question about Joseph’s contract. Was there a transfer fee associated with it? Will that allow us to restructure Chara’s DP now and sign another DP midseason? Also, I feel that MP tried to sign Mix as a DP to avoid allocation and was told that because he was a USMNT player he couldn’t do that. Just my conspiracy theory. That said I could see the league doing whatever it could to allow Seattle to sign Clint if that was the only place he wanted to play. Even if that means changing the allocation rule forever.

  4. JW says:

    In some ways, unfortunately this is the MLS entering the “big” leagues of unilateral decisions made for the league$ benefit, not the fans. If you need any validation of this, I offer two words, “David Stern” to cite an example of manipulation at the expense of league rules and fan’s best interests. The other major leagues also end up playing this game also. As you note, thus far, soccer culture in the US involves the fans in a unique way and it will be a shame if the MLS begins to throw this partnership out the window.

    • Buddhahead says:

      I think you’re totally right here. This league is a weird situation, in that these teams are competing but at the same time working together to build the MLS brand as a whole.

      A good example was that in one article I read today, Joe Roth was challenging the other owners to sign Chicharito. Would you see that in any other major US sport, where one order urges the others to sign better players? Not on your life. I don’t know how to evaluate “competitive procedures” in the face of their simultaneous collaboration.

      It does make you wonder if the MLS will become like the MLB in that some owners are willing to spend a lot less and have a weaker team, letting a few dominate the spending, knowing that enough money will come their way to make a buck, irrespective of their performance.

      Full disclosure: Sounders fan.

  5. bickle says:

    Good story, but put me in for another vote for hearing how the S. Joseph contract came suddenly to be unfinalized after the deadline for deals to be finalized had passed.

    Also, the PTFC/Mix deal was quashed, as I have understood it, by his father/agent, who did not, ultimately, wish to sell his son to a league and preferred to deal solely and directly with a club.

  6. Shawn Levy says:

    (This may be a double-ish post.)

    Good article, but count me as another voice who wants to know how they could renegotiate a finalized contract w/S. Joseph after the deadline for finalizing contracts had passed.

    Also, by my understanding, the problem with signing Mix was largely that his father/agent didn’t want to sign him to a league but rather to deal solely and directly with a club.

  7. Braden says:

    I find it most interesting that Merritt hasn’t been on twitter since the ASG. Could it be that he is currently fighting this behind closed doors before taking his grievance public? I don’t have an issue with not signing Deuce, but I do take issue with what seems like a rewriting of the rules to suit the player. If this is what the Timbers wanted to do with Mix, there should be hell to pay by the league. Maybe Merritt is too busy with his lawyers to tweet…

    • Janet Potter says:

      We can only hope that Merritt is dealing behind closed doors with this issue – I find it appalling that MLS creates rules and does not follow them (call me naive if you wish, but I do held them to a higher standard – guess that was foolish). Merritt – are YOU listening to the fans??????

  8. Ed H. says:

    On other stories about this, mostly Fish fans loudly say “if this was a problem, wouldn’t the Timbers FO be arguing loudly against it?”

    To that, I agree with Braden, odds are they have been arguing loudly against it – just loudly behind closed doors. MP has learned not to incur the wrath of MLS HQ – he stayed publicly dead silent on the Cascadia Cup issue, yet I believe he had a role in making MLS buzz the eff off on it. I would wager similar here – he *IS* fighting it, but he must do it internal to MLS, not publicly.

  9. Shawn Levy says:

    Oh, and don’t forget: By not being subjected to the allocation process, as they should have been, SSFC gets to retain their plum spot in the allocation order.

  10. Andy says:

    Hold up. Let’s not pretend the Portland owners would have spent the $41 million needed to land Dempsey anyways.

    Portland has a DP spot open. There are plenty of players out there, they could easily go get one. The fact is Portland’s front office is failing them. Their two DP’s combined payroll is $650,000, effectively 1/10th that of teams like New York, Seattle and LA.

    Portland should have a big star on their team except their front office is ether pocketing a bunch the teams profits or mismanaging them.

  11. Raul says:

    Seattle didnt pay $41mil. The league paid the transfer fee ($9mil). The worst part of this transaction is the precedent being set. The league will subsidize transfer fees for highly profiled/paid players (good), but only big clubs will be able to pay the salaries (bad). Those big clubs could probably pay the transfer fee in the first place, why have the other clubs subsidize the transfer fee if they will never have a realistic shot that those types of players.

  12. Beau says:

    Where is the local media on this story?

  13. Me says:

    fyi, Hahnemann was subject to allocation even though he had retired from USMNT, so the only reason Reyna wouldn’t have been subject to allocation was his DP tag.

    • Chris Rifer says:

      That’s a good point. I thought about Hahnemann and Wikipedia’d him as I was deciding whether I wanted to research whether a formally retired USMNT player had been subjected to the allocation process, but bailed out because I couldn’t figure out whether he formally retired from the USMNT and took himself out of the pool, or he’d just stopped being capped. I know that’s splitting hairs, but that’s sort of the point we’re at here.

      In the end, I sort of copped out of this research because it was going to be really hard and was getting a little far afield of my thesis (perhaps an uncharacteristic piece of self-restraint considering I have 500 words of footnotes).

  14. Michael W. says:

    Disclosure: Sounders supporter.

    Good read. And I agree with everything in it.

    But Footnote 1 is the salient point here: The financial sacrifice we made to get him wouldn’t have changed sans single-entity bullshit.

  15. Mike says:

    Wait until you see what the rules say about the use of scouting services…

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