By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jun 6, 2018) US Soccer Players - Target Allocation Money has, on the whole, been good for Major League Soccer. The league's new budget mechanism allows clubs to bridge the gap in the MLS talent pool between Designated Players with their seven-figure salaries and the lower level players often making closer to $100,000 a year. To say that it has been successful at building that bridge, even in such a short time, would be an understatement.
Like anything with MLS, TAM comes with complications. The freedom to sign higher quality players has improved the league. It's helped solve a longterm problem by allowing teams to differentiate themselves from one another. The greater investment in salaries has also increased league scrutiny of how teams are spending TAM.
At The Athletic on Tuesday, Paul Tenorio reported that several MLS general managers aren't happy with MLS’s heavy hand over proposed TAM contracts. The league office rejected TAM contracts for a group of American and US-developed players. Presumably, the league is attempting to ensure that teams spend TAM money on players it deems worthy of bigger salaries. The kind of players it believes will raise the quality of play in the league and attract more fans.
As a single-entity operation with the power to approve each and every contract, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that MLS is exerting influence over TAM spending. As the league has endeavored in recent years to project the image of being a competition where teams are free to build their sides as they choose without obvious interference, Tenorio’s story is troubling. Once again, it looks like MLS is trying to have it both ways.
On one side of the equation is TAM’s utility in helping teams attract a higher caliber of foreign talent. From an agnostic view on the origin of MLS players, the function of TAM as a means to bring in more talent from outside of the country is hardly problematic. As Americans fans slowly turn their focus to clubs over the prospects of the USMNT, there’s even an argument that MLS shouldn’t prioritize serving as a home for the American player.
The league’s mandate from the beginning, however, was to be exactly that. America needed a national first division in order to secure the World Cup in 1994, but it also needed a national first division so more American players could get professional jobs playing the game. Now in its twenty-third season, MLS is reckoning the balance between rapidly improving the product for commercial opportunities and providing a place for Americans to play.
That’s the other side of the TAM equation. If MLS sees the new money as mostly there for new signings (read: higher caliber foreign signings), the league will be reticent to allow teams to use their TAM pool to re-sign players already established in MLS. Because the players most likely to want pay raises are Americans since they're the players most likely to enter the League at the lower end of the pay scale, this creates a conflict. That conflict is borne out by reports that among the players who had TAM contracts rejected by the league are Tim Parker, Stefan Frei, Walker Zimmerman, CJ Sapong, and Joevin Jones.
Jones is not American. However, he did have a green card and counted as a domestic player while playing with the Sounders. His situation is most emblematic of the problem MLS faces by shifting resources so dramatically towards foreign players. Jones established himself as a dynamic wing talent with Seattle, contributing to the club’s MLS Cup victory in 2016 and helping the Sounders reach the MLS Cup Final again in 2017.
When Jones’s contract was coming up, the Sounders couldn't meet his salary demands because MLS rejected the club’s proposed TAM contract. Jones then left for richer pastures, namely the second division in Germany. MLS is poorer for Jones’s departure, both in terms of talent and because the league lost a good player to a lesser league in Europe. MLS may be growing in reputation in some quarters, but it’s hard to spin Jones’s move as a positive. The Sounders, because his contract simply expired, received no compensation for Jones.
Major League Soccer knows it must pay good wages to compete on the international market for foreign players. A recent spike in transfer fee spending indicates MLS has a growing appetite for participating in the business of buying and selling... eventually. Clubs like Atlanta, LAFC, NYCFC, and others are pushing the league forward at a pace that fits its ambitions. If MLS is going to claim a spot among the world’s most important competitions at any point in the next decade, engaging fully in the business of the player market is critical.
Of course, this being MLS, (semi)unrestrained spending just won’t do. Controlling labor costs is part of this league’s DNA. MLS has gone to great lengths to protect its right to manipulate the internal market for players. So while spending is up on players arriving from outside of the league’s sphere of economic influence, the instinct is to tighten the grip on salaries for players already in the league. Those actions have implications.
Unless MLS wants to be a league that actively promotes mass turnover every season, it pays to keep established players happy. Taking care of players who grow into their careers in MLS sends a positive message. If the only American players that can count on getting what they’re worth are returning national team stars on massive DP contracts, there will be no incentive for young players to even consider MLS as a professional launching point.
It’s difficult to see the league’s rejection of TAM contracts for domestic players as anything other than a massive misstep. MLS wants fans to believe that teams are independent but restricts their ability to sign players under the rules on TAM deals. MLS wants to establish itself as a player-friendly place but sends mixed messages about rewarding good play. MLS wants to spend more but penalizes its domestic player base for nothing more than being domestic.
MLS can’t be ambitious and miserly. It can’t want to grow rapidly and apply the rules arbitrarily. The league can’t be all things at once.
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(Photo by Jeremy Olson - ISIPhotos.com)