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.
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.
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, MLS stated publicly for the first time that Designated Players are not subject to the allocation order rules, even if they otherwise qualify.
The problem, however, is that neither the published Allocation Ranking rules nor the Designated Player rules 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. 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, 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.
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, it may again be the state of MLS support tomorrow.
It’s time for MLS to grow up.
Onward, Rose City.
 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.
 2013 MLS Player Rules and Regulations § II(A), available at http://pressbox.mlssoccer.com/content/roster-rules-and-regulations (last visited August 3, 2013).
 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).
 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.
 See 2013 MLS Player Rules and Regulations § II(B).
 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.
 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.
 As the apparent lack of discussion about the allocation order upon Reyna’s signing suggests.
 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.