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MLS releases 2015 roster rules and highlights lack of commitment to league quality

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MLS released their 2015 roster rules at 4PM EST on Friday. The rules are more transparent but also reveal the players' salary budget was lower than reported.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

If you are reading this you are pretty likely a fan of Major League Soccer. If you're a fan of Major League Soccer you probably realize that it's not among the greatest leagues in the world, or even close. But if you're a fan then you might dream that it one day will be. After all, the commissioner of the league has publicly stated his goal to have the league be among the best in the world in just seven short years. You may even believe him.

Major League Soccer revealed their roster rules for 2015 on Friday at 4pm EST, when everyone was slipping home from work for the weekend, and in so doing revealed more details about their new CBA agreement and other rules. The document is more transparent about certain rules, which is great, but what is also clear is that the league has very little chance of dramatically improving under the current CBA. Let's start there.

The new salary cap

The new salary budget for each team is $3,490,000 which is up 12.6% over last year's budget of $3,100,000. The budget will reportedly increase by 7% per year through 2019. The budget has been increasing 5% per year per the last CBA. In 2014, MLS announced a new $90M per year television deal. This was a sizable increase from the roughly $30M the league was receiving in the prior deal. Some of that money is earmarked for US Soccer, but based on the financials released by US Soccer, my guess is that MLS will take the lion share of that increase - let's call it $50M.

Take that $390,000 budget increase and multiply it by the 20 teams and you get $7.8M. That means the players could receive about 16% of that television money this year. Looking forward, after the 7% increases and further expansion that players' share of the television revenues does rise substantially, to over 50%. Keep in mind there is no mechanism that requires owners to spend the entire budget. If you take the salary budget increase over 2014 and factor in expansion to 23 teams over the next five years, there will be $83M in incremental money spent on players while the new television deal will bring in a new $250M, or 33%.

By comparison, in the latest agreement between players and owners in the NFL, players receive 55% of television revenues. If soccer players were given that amount they'd see an extra $55M over the course of the new five-year agreement.

What will be done with that extra $55M that is not going to the majority of the players? Don Garber owes an explanation to the fans of how this extra television money will be spent. Some of it could come in the form of higher priced Designated Players. Some could go to youth development program. Some to marketing.  Some to training facilities. Some to the owners. And this doesn't even include growth in sponsorship or licensing revenues, all of which the players will see none of.

Why not tell fans what the plans are for that money? How is that money going to make this league better if it's not going directly into player quality? If Garber wants his league to be more transparent, I recommend he start there.

It should also be noted that Designated Player roster spots remain at a maximum of 3 per team, with the 3rd DP coming with a $150,000 charge for the convenience. The DP cap hit also increased 12.6% to $436,250.

How much the salary cap increase will impact quality depends on how much of the money is spent on bringing in improved talent compared to paying current players more money. The latter is unavoidable and even fair, but spending that money on existing talent won't help the long term quality of the league.

Allocation signings and allocation money

There was much more transparency on the subject of allocation money, and there are some curious incentives. Each team gets a base of $150K per year. Then an undisclosed amount of additional money is doled out to 1) teams that don't make the playoffs, 2) lose a player to another league via transfer and 3) CONCACAF Champions League qualifiers.

That means in theory that the Seattle Sounders would receive money for qualifying for the CCL and also for the loss of DeAndre Yedlin to Tottenham Hotspur. That might be more money than the Philadelphia Union would receive for not making the playoffs. It does not appear that allocation money is purely designed to help the weaker teams get better.

Further, in expansion years the rules state that all teams receive the same allocation money. Expansion is already planned for 2017 and 2018 for Atlanta, LA and Minnesota, and the weaker teams won't be compensated differently.

The allocation ranking process still exists as well. The ranking works the same but now the league is publishing the official list of players who qualify for the process.

allocation roster list

source: Sports Illustrated

Discovery claims

The way in which new international players can be signed is through the discovery process. There is more transparency about this process as well. Clubs can have seven players on their discovery list which is required before signing such a player. This list is to be kept private for competitive reasons. Imagine an international list of 140 players. If one of those players wants to make a move to MLS then the team with that player on their discovery list is the one that would sign them.

In the case where two teams make a discovery claim on the same day, the team with the lower points per game would get the player's rights. I imagine this would be useful if a big name player announces his interest in joining MLS and teams, who otherwise did not consider him an option, might rush to make a claim.

In this section there is also interesting language on the amortization of transfer fees. Generally teams do not amortize transfer fees but they are able to name one "special discovery player" and amortize the fee over the length of the contract as long as the total amount of compensation does not exceed the maximum salary budget charge of $436,250. It appears as though this mechanism allows teams to sign a DP type player and keep them below the DP threshold.

International roster spots

If the player salaries aren't concerning, then the international roster spot limit should do the trick. This limit stayed at an average of eight in 2018 (these spots are tradeable). Why is this concerning? The league will expand to 23 teams in 2018 per current plans, which means that the number of players will increase by 15%. International players will increase by 15%, which should be easy to achieve given the size of that market. But that means the domestic pool must also increase by 15%. Do you have confidence that the American soccer system will increase its output of MLS quality talent by 15% in the next 3 years? If they can't then the quality of American players in the league on average will get watered down. That would make it even harder for the league to achieve the goal of top league in seven more seasons. The only way that dilution can be avoided with certainty is to make the league more international. Keeping the roster limit where it is does not help.

I've written about this issue before but I think it's important to keep the topic of talent dilution front of mind anytime you hear Don Garber talk about expanding beyond 24 teams. This league can only grow in quality if the American soccer system can increase its output of quality players at the same rate the league is growing, if not faster.

There is great news in this version of the roster rules. The allocation and discovery mechanisms are now significant more clear, which is great for the credibility of the league.  The bad news is that reading between the lines of the salary increases makes fans wonder if they are committed to building a world class league.

What I think fans will see is more signings like Sebatian Giovinco, David Villa, Mix Diskerud, and Jozy Altidore. Some of the extra television money will be used to sign higher profile and more expensive Designated Players. The salary budget increases will definitely allow teams to increase the quality of the rosters overall. League expansion puts that quality at some risk, but the star power and overall quality of the league will improve. That's something to look forward to, but it just won't happen as quickly as fans have been led to believe.