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The Allocation Ranking Fallacy

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Why Allocation Rankings mean everything - and nothing - to teams in Major League Soccer.

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Jozy Altidore coming back to Major League Soccer was not surprising. Long rumored to be headed back to the states after a six year stint in Europe, Altidore signed with Toronto FC last Friday. If only it were really that simple.

MLS is a league of many rules.

Ostensibly, all rules are meant to prevent the franchises from competing against one another. Since player rights are owned by Major League Soccer, it makes sense that the league would prevent clubs from engaging in a bidding war against one another over the services of a player. Most times this works well, with the player agreeing to play with MLS for a set amount of money per season and the clubs offering the other clubs fair market compensation for said player, be it another player, draft picks, allocation money, international slots, et cetera.

For players that come in to MLS from abroad, there are several mechanisms that are used to determine what team that player goes to. The first mechanism listed on Major League Soccer's Roster Rules and Regulations page is the Allocation Ranking mechanism. The rule states:

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 2013 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.
*Designated Players of a certain threshold – as determined by the League – are not subject to allocation ranking.

There are some immediate things that stand out with this wording. First, nothing defines what constitutes a U.S. National Team player. Obviously someone on the current roster would count. What about someone in the player pool though? Does a player who attended a USMNT camp but didn't actually play count?  Would someone who hasn't featured for the team in a year or two still count?

The second thing - and perhaps the most cause for confusion - is the part in italics at the bottom regarding "Designated Players of a certain threshold". The wording on that seems intentionally vague and open to interpretation. This rule was added when Clint Dempsey made his return to MLS in 2013, allowing Dempsey to circumvent the allocation ranking and go directly to the Seattle Sounders. There is no set number where that threshold is, so it wouldn't be difficult to adjust that as the league see fit.

Since Altidore doesn't seem to fall above that threshold, so he would be subject to the allocation ranking. And since the Montreal Impact were tops of the Allocation Ranking, Altidore would naturally go there right?

Not so fast. Altidore's reported C$6 million salary effectively priced out Montreal, as well as the San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, and Houston Dynamo. That begs the question: If salary is an obstacle for a team high in the Allocation Ranking signing a player, then what's the point of having this mechanism in the first place? Since the Allocation Rankings are reset at the beginning of the season to allow the worst teams the first option to acquire a player, what's the point if the player prices himself out of reach of the have-nots (Montreal, San Jose, Chicago, Houston, and most other teams) and becomes the exclusive property of the haves (Toronto, Los Angeles,New York Red Bulls, New York City FC, and Seattle)?


What can be done to bring parity to a league that touts parity as one of its strong points?

A better way might be to have the player's rights given to the team in the first available Allocation Ranking slot, leaving that team to either sign the player or deal the player to whichever team wants his services. This way the club who should get the player will at least get something out of it all. Montreal could have gotten a player, allocation money, draft picks, an international slot - something from Toronto for them refusing to exercise their option on Altidore.

One possible drawback would be where a club held a player's rights and wasn't willing or able to deal them. The Herculez Gomez situation with Sporting Kansas City is a prime example. Since Gomez left MLS after receiving a "bona fide" offer from the Kansas City Wizards, SKC still holds his rights - even though he's been playing in Mexico for half a decade now.

So does the Allocation Ranking mechanism serve its purpose? Does it reward the rich, underperforming teams - the ones who need the least help in acquiring quality USMNT talent? It seems that under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement setup, these sorts of anomalies will surely continue to happen. In the absence of true free agency, these situations only serve to further the divide between the haves and have-nots - both players and teams alike. So what are some solutions that MLS and the Player's Union should consider? Let us know in the comments section below!