Playing for the now in MLS

By J Hutcherson (Jun 28, 2022) US Soccer Players – In its expanded version, MLS had become a one-season league. The best teams can fade quickly. Surprises are bound to happen, becoming so common that it’s almost a tactic. Each year, a low payroll team will look like an overachiever and potentially surprise even itself. That throws a willingness to spend into contrast. An MLS season may reward it, but there’s always space for an outside contender. While it’s an easy scenario to embrace, the growth of the league is pushing towards a different model.

Some MLS clubs are willing to do more than others. They’re spending, and whether it’s figuring out a way to add name players on free transfers or competing on fees in the market, there will be notable midseason adjustments in 2022.

For those teams willing to spend, this summer window is another opportunity to try figuring out how that should work in this league. LAFC’s recent moves didn’t involve transfer fees but certainly reset their expectations. It’s a similar situation with Lorenzo Insigne in Toronto, though the reported amount of Insigne’s Designated Player deal is different in terms of scope to anybody else in the league.

Other teams have spent on fees, like Columbus moving for Cucho Hernandez. All of this happens amid the interplay of the league’s salary and roster regulations. While that might not seem as limiting as it used to, it still means finding fits that simply wouldn’t exist in other leagues.

That interplay isn’t just about winning in the regular season. There’s an established disconnect between regular season success and the playoffs in MLS. In this league, one isn’t independent of the other, but we’re seeing less of a reason to use playoff uncertainty as an for not making big moves. Instead, it’s at best or worst an operating constraint that tends to bring even the top regular season clubs closer to what passes for an MLS median. It’s also something that may not end up in play.

Spending in MLS carries with it a question of competitiveness in a league that only in recent seasons has embraced all aspects of the transfer system. Clubs spend to make themselves better now. That point of separation is important right now, creating space in a table that’s been deceptively close so far this season.

With the schedules unbalanced, eight points is the difference between 1st and out of the playoffs in the East. It’s the same difference between 2nd and out of the playoffs in the West. LAFC is up four points at the top of the Supporters’ Shield table, one of the teams deciding July additions will only help.

The system should eventually reward the spenders and risk-takers. Otherwise, there’s a scope issue that needs addressing by all involved. How much is enough to distinguish a team or two from the rest in this league, especially in this new era of spending? If the answer isn’t clear, it could impact the motivation to make the kind of moves that increases the profile of Major League Soccer.

There’s a long list of not at all subtle reminders hanging over any team that decides to spend now. MLS is a single-season turnaround league, and that works up and down the tables. An already contending team can still decide they need major moves, especially coming off of a disappointing season. Others decide that what they have is enough to get them into the playoffs where we know upsets will happen.

What this requires is somewhat of a unique approach to initial squad building and summer transfer window strategy. Yes, there are other teams with playoffs to determine a champion. What there aren’t are 28-team leagues using playoffs to decide the winner. MLS is unique, a league that designed itself around a specific definition of parity and economic restraint that still determines enough of how it operates to remain in place. It might not be the original version of single-entity, but it’s still single-entity.

That push/pull between the more freewheeling economics of the major European leagues or even Liga MX and the MLS system creates opportunity. Most of the time, spending still only does so much, perhaps a quirk of the MLS system but one that continues to separate it from what would be business as usual in other soccer leagues. As that changes, Major League Soccer changes with it.

J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at jhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

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Photo by Angel Marchini – ZUMA Press Wire – ISIPhotos.com

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