News broke yesterday that MLS has added Christian Pulisic, America’s soccer darling, to the Allocation List after his 18th birthday.
This list, which draws players from the U.S. Men’s National Team, U.S. Youth National Team and American players transferred outside of MLS garnering a transfer fee of at least $500,000 (USD), puts MLS teams in line for a spot to grab the top American-affiliated talent if they were to come to the US’s top division.
As a growing league in a cutthroat international market, it helps to be able to collectively bargain for transfers. A player in Europe garnering interest in the US is not so much debating between a contract at their current club against a contract with the LA Galaxy as they are debating a contract between their club and MLS. But while the league’s transfer unity on the international market can serve as positive in many ways, the Allocation List hurts the quality and the integrity of the league and the players it hopes to bring in.
Currently, the Chicago Fire, MLS’s resident embarrassment, sits atop the Allocation List. That means that if Pulisic was eying a return to American soccer (and let me take a moment to assure you that he’s not even looking at Liverpool, let alone MLS) only the Fire would have the right to his transfer. Other clubs could bid draft spots, money or trades for the incoming player, but the final decision would be up to the Fire. Instead of letting teams operate by their own agency and letting them try to woo burgeoning American talent home, the league acts as the gatekeeper and placer for all incoming talent related to America.
But don’t be fooled, not every American abroad is subject to the Allocation List.
Just look at the Chicago Fire’s Gabriel Ferrari, who they signed after a trial in 2011. Ferrari started his career in Sampdoria, then had a stint at AC Bellinzona in Switzerland. When he returned to American soccer there was no restriction on which club had the right to his transfer since he had never capped for the USMNT or had a transfer of over $500,000.
In one way that seems reasonable, but if you look at it from someone like Pulisic’s perspective it looks as though he is being punished for his talent. If he wanted to come back home he’d be at the will of the Chicago Fire, so the choice is clear for the BVB player.
It’s the same situation that brought Charlie Davies to DC United in 2011. His time with the USMNT landed him on the Allocation List and United’s horrid season landed them with first dibs. After playing one season with United and disagreements with the coaching staff, Davies moved back abroad to the Danish side Randers.
Instead of letting every MLS team evaluate their needs and figure out how a prolific American forward like Davies would fit into their lineup and then bidding on him, as the international world of soccer goes, Davies had a short stint with a team struggling through rebuilding and left the league after one year.
How many Americans playing abroad don’t want to think about coming to America because they know their future is subject to this list? Furthermore, how many USMNT-affiliated players are limited for donning their country’s uniform when they would have had ultimate transfer freedom had they said no to an international call-up?
The list’s goal is to help bring a sense of parity to MLS. If clubs like the LA Galaxy or Seattle Sounders were allowed to buy up every good player looking to play in the league, many of which are affiliated with our national team system, you would see parity slip. And to MLS parity is hugely important.
If you look at the current standings, the teams at the top of both the eastern and western conferences (Toronto and Dalles respectively) have lost eight of their thirty matches. This redistribution of talent throughout the league is always generating new conference champions at very close margins. It’s rare to see a team dominate their conference and has made it hard for any one team to become a consistent MLS Cup contender (besides arguably the LA Galaxy).
To me, this manufactured parity has become boring. Instead of having a handful of teams that have historically done great business and developmental work to stack their team battle it out for the title, you forcibly spread the talent out evenly throughout the league so that people from San Jose will stay interested hoping that they can have a better shot next year. It doesn’t help develop teams and it doesn’t seem even close to genuine.
But the parity the Allocation List is trying to facilitate is not it’s worst feature. The list is a way for MLS to dictate how its teams do their business.
For the perfect example, let’s look at the Fire again.
When Brian McBride, an Arlington Heights local, wanted to finish his career in his hometown MLS club he faced one outstanding issue. Toronto FC were at the top of the Allocation List and claimed the American striker. The Fire had to trade Chad Barrett, a forward who had established himself as a starter, and a first round draft pick to offer a contract to McBride.
The hoops that both Chicago and McBride had to jump through to make this retirement happen were absurd. The Fire had to relinquish actual and prospective talent to acquire McBride. MLS told McBride that he had to play for a bad team he didn’t care to play for if he wanted to play in America.
The picture painted is embarrassing. The end-goal is clearly not one focused on elevating the talent of the league.
And the Toronto-McBride situation paints one more glaring problem with the Allocation List. MLS currently has three Canadian-based teams, yet there is no rule for Canadian nationals looking to enter the league. This fact paints a picture of MLS not only restricting the business their teams can do, but also heavily regulating (read as: punishing) USMNT-affiliated players who want to explore American professional soccer as an option.
If you have read my musings on MLS before (shameless links here), it’s obvious that I have some problems with the league. But the issue of the Allocation List leaves a particularly bad taste in my mouth.
It may be that there are so many examples of the list not working how it’s planned, or that I’m worried I may see Pulisic in a Fire jersey in two years (I’m assuming the Fire will continue being the Fire), but the Allocation List is one of the many “quirky MLS” features that limit the prospective ability of the league.
I understand that MLS teams are franchises, not independent clubs, so the league will never let them fully operate like individual entities. But until clubs are allowed to pursue their own excellence without the parity-oriented restrictions imposed by MLS, the talent-level will stay the same.
If your goal is parity between all clubs, how can the LA Galaxy become Barcelona when their level of talent is partially decided by the Chicago Fire? I’ll let you answer that one yourself.