Wednesday, April 23, 2008
MLS tackles the issue of transparency
For all of its notable successes -- adding teams and building stadiums across the continent, signing brand-name performers like Blanco and Beckham, merely surviving for 13 years -- MLS has taken some well-deserved heat throughout its history for what many view as a make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude towards its own arcane set of rules and regulations. The complaints often have been justified.
After all, it was only three years ago that the suits at MLS headquarters in Manhattan strong-armed FC Dallas into trading an allocation so Landon Donovan could play in Los Angeles after returning from Bayer Leverkusen. It didn't matter that that FCD probably would have taken Donovan over Carlos Ruiz in a heartbeat, or that Donovan's rights should have belonged to his former club, San Jose.
And that's but one example. In 2003, Dallas had to relinquish the top overall draft pick so that flagship club D.C. United could select local sensation Freddy Adu. And in 2000, the Galaxy off-loaded future U.S. national team star Clint Mathis against its will so the league could strategically place petulant and past-it Mexican striker Luis Hernandez in immigrant-rich Southern California.
Today, grumblings that MLS still plays hard-and-fast with the rules remain. The oft-cited beef now is that the league is allowing high-salaried Donovan and Ruiz, both of whom originally were to count as designated players in 2008, to play alongside top earner David Beckham in L.A., even though the Galaxy owns only one actual designated-player spot.
"Obviously we're very concerned about it," said New York Red Bulls sporting director Jeff Agoos of the latest policy change. Agoos has good reason to question the decision. The Red Bulls are one of only two clubs to have traded for a second salary-exempted player, the maximum allowed under MLS guidelines.
While it's true that L.A. still has to comply with the roughly $2.3 million salary cap, as Agoos said, "Essentially, the Galaxy now has three designated players."
To his credit, MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis is quick to admit that the league has long had an issue with transparency. Still, Gazidis insists MLS has grown leaps and bounds since the early years, when the league office routinely initiated or vetoed player-personnel moves.
In recent years, individual clubs have been given more leeway, within the modest financial constraints, to build their teams the way they see fit. And it is a fair point that the rules themselves, while ever changing, are much more clearly defined than in the past."I think we're far more transparent now than we've ever been," Gazidis said. "The fact that people are debating the [grandfathered] player issue is a manifestation of that. I think we have to explain to the public exactly what's happening. I'm not sure we were even explaining things to our general managers and coaches in the distant past. Now, they may or may not like the explanation, but I think the fact that there is a controversy and we're explaining it is healthy."
Count Columbus Crew GM Mark McCullers as one who feels the Donovan/Ruiz conundrum was fairly resolved. Like six other teams, Columbus has yet to play its DP card. But that didn't stop them from luring Argentine legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto to Crew Stadium last year. The former Boca Juniors standout arrived with a pedigree every bit as impressive as the other high profile imports.
His "compensation package," as McCullers called it, was reportedly worth more than $1 million in 2007. Still, according to the MLS Players Union, Schelotto's salary ate up only $150,000-worth of cap space last year.
It's precisely these sorts of bookkeeping shenanigans that forces even those on the inside to sometimes question the league's credibility.
McCullers explained that unused transfer funds (The Crew received undisclosed handouts from MLS for missing the playoffs in 2005 and '06) were used to make up the difference in Schelotto's salary. That cash, like most of the profits earned when a player is sold overseas, "can be used to bring players in via transfer or to apply to new contracts," McCullers said. "The rules have loosened quite a bit and it has allowed teams greater flexibility in acquiring players. But you can't use it as just salary cap money."
What's the difference, you ask? As a practical matter, there doesn't seem to be one.
FC Dallas is finally benefiting from the madness. Like Schelotto, former Mexican World Cup defender Duilio Davino isn't considered a designated player despite reportedly earning well over the non-DP maximum of about $400,000 the MLSPA says he'll make in 2008.
Still, two examples hardly qualify as a trend, and there have been few complaints about either deal, largely because the other teams are playing by the same rules.
"In the days when the league was literally allocating players to teams, there was far more reason for clubs to feel aggrieved," Gazidis said.
"We're trying to take steps towards transparency without damaging ourselves and our ability to sign really good players," he said. "Finding that balance is always a little bit delicate."
And when it comes to operating a compelling competition on a budget, Gazidis is correct when he argues that, at the very least, MLS' business model gives all of its teams a real opportunity to compete. In Europe, a major complaint is the fact that most leagues are no longer competitive from top to bottom. It's no secret that only three or four English teams can realistically hope to win the Premier League title in a given year.
"Our system isn't perfect, but neither are any of the other systems," said Gazidis. "I do believe our system allows more transparency and more competition between all of our teams than a completely unregulated system, which is essentially what they have around the world.
"There are always going to be criticisms of any process," he added. "But in broad terms, yes, we are going to become more transparent over time. I think we're pretty transparent now. In fact, candidly, I think we're maybe the most transparent soccer league in the world."
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.