If MLS wants to fulfill its goal of becoming one of the world’s premier soccer leagues, the signing of Lionel Messi may lead to some player-acquisition rules changes that many past and current players have hoped to see for many years.
The players don’t think the changes are mandatory to effect what MLS wants, but eliminating a few of the “buckets” – Young Designated Players, Under-22s, Internationals – that the league has come up with to acquire players could speed up the process, they say.
“I think that’s one of the best things about Messi coming into the league, from the player perspective,” former Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said. “It’s similar to when David Beckham came to the league. They instituted these new rules about DPs and different spending mechanisms and stuff, and it helps the Players Association drastically, and I think with Messi, you’ll have the same effect.”
MLS is unique among the world’s leagues in its player-signing mechanisms. Teams have a salary budget – the league said it’s not a cap – that this season is $5.21 million, from which they have several ways to acquire as many as 20 players, which are the senior roster. The roster can include as many as 10 more players whose salaries don’t count against the budget.
Among the ways teams can sign players for slots 1-30, some are familiar, such as free agency and promoting from Academy teams. Others, YDPs, U22s and Allocation Money, are unique to MLS and can make following teams and signings unnecessarily difficult.
Some of the rules were put into place long ago to find a balance between those teams that don’t want to spend a lot of money and those that do. They also were designed to develop domestic talent with levers for adding internationals by using what the league call international slots, which can be traded for by using allocation money, which is a made-up currency unique to MLS.
Now, as expansion fees have risen to a reported $500 million, it’s natural to assume that owners want a quick return on their outlay. An easy way to get those revenues is to go after world-class players such as Messi, who pack stadiums with those who have purchased suites, season tickets or single tickets, sell jerseys and other merchandise, draw ratings and generate in-market interest.
Teams currently can buy as many as three of those types players. They are called Designated Players, a designation which is unique in MLS and was instituted so that the league could add David Beckham. There is a small charge against the salary budget, and the rest is paid for by the owners. Some deals are straight forward. Others, like Messi’s, which includes a reported stake in Apple subscriptions and kit sales, are unique.
Former Atlanta United player Jeff Larentowicz and current team captain Brad Guzan, who have served on the MLSPA Executive Board and been a part of collective-bargaining negotiations, said it would be much easier to sign some of these players, and make the league better and more competitive, if some of the “buckets” were eliminated.
“I don’t think it’s necessary, I think that it would be beneficial if the financing rules start to change,” Guzan said. “I’ve been in this league. I know where it was. I’ve been a part of it when it was in a stage where they were obviously losing tons of money. They’ve allowed the league to to grow in a safe way. But I think, for the fan of the game of soccer, I think we want the ability then to take some of those restrictions away.
“And I think if you really want to maximize the notoriety of the sport, not just because of Messi, but if you really want the sport of soccer, with everything that the sport is going to be taking on in the next few years in terms of the Copa America, in terms of obviously the World Cup, to take advantage of that, then it would be nice to see some of these restrictions removed.”
Different ideas were floated. Most were similar to what the NBA does. Among them is to install a salary floor and a salary cap with a tax for those teams that want to spend more. Another is to eliminate all of the different classifications to acquire and let teams spend on whatever players they want.
“The owners are successful for a reason,” Larentowicz said. “And if you look at any sort of asset that you invested that amount of money, you want to make sure that you continue to feed that asset so that improves.”
Miami manager Gerardo Martino has spent time in leagues that develop and sell talent such as in Argentina, leagues that buy, such as Spain, and leagues like MLS that are now doing a bit of both. He also said it’s time for the league to become more flexible with signing younger players, moving players from the academy to the first team, while also allowing teams to buy more international players.
It seems most agree.
“There are players out there that want to come to Miami now strictly to play for him (Messi) or to play with him and for Miami,” Parkhurst said. “And you don’t want to lose out on those potential players because of rules, particularly rules that a bunch of teams wanted to get rid of. Especially the more progressive teams. So, I do foresee that there’ll be some rule changes in the offseason so that teams can have more flexibility with how and where they spend their money.
“I think that the growth of the league is at a place now where you have to let teams decide how they want to spend their money and where they want to spend their money.”
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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule
Feb. 25 Atlanta United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
March 4 Atlanta United 1, Toronto FC 1
March 11 Atlanta United 3, Charlotte FC 0
March 18 Atlanta United 5, Portland 1
March 25 Columbus 6, Atlanta United 1
April 1 Atlanta United 1, New York Red Bulls 0
April 8 Atlanta United 1, New York City FC 1
April 15 Atlanta United 2, Toronto FC 2
April 23 Atlanta United 2, Chicago 1
April 29 Nashville SC 3, Atlanta United 1
May 6 Inter Miami CF 2, Atlanta United 1
May 13 Charlotte 3, Atlanta United 1
May 17 Atlanta United 4, Colorado 0
May 20 Atlanta United 3, Chicago 3
May 27 Atlanta United 1, Orlando 1
May 31 Atlanta United 3, New England 3
June 7 Atlanta United 0, LAFC 0
June 10 Atlanta United 3, D.C. United 1
June 21 Atlanta United 2, New York City 2
June 24 New York Red Bulls 4, Atlanta United 0
July 2 Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0
July 8 Atlanta United 1, Montreal 0
July 12 New England 2, Atlanta United 1
July 15 Orlando City 2, Atlanta United 1
July 25 Miami 4, Atlanta United 0 in Leagues Cup
July 29 Cruz Azul 1 (5), Atlanta United (4) 1 in Leagues Cup
Aug. 20 Atlanta United 2, Seattle 0
Aug. 26 Atlanta United 4, Nashville 0
Aug. 30 Cincinnati 2, Atlanta United 1
Sept. 2 Atlanta United 2, FC Dallas 2
Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 5 p.m.
Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA