Manipulating MLS rules for Points and Profit

Oh, drat these MLS Rules, they’re so naughty and so complex! I could just pinch them!
— Garvin the Goalkeeper

The defining characteristic of these rules is everybody’s favourite player, ‘Al Location’. You see this fine upstanding gentleman going from club to club and back again. He seems to be on something of a timeshare. He’ll be in San Jose one day, Vancouver the next, and only a few weeks later be seen hanging out with the Sons of Ben in Philadelphia.

While covering the Whitecaps, I have had the privilege of sitting in on MLS presentations conducted by Greg Anderson, the Whitecaps Director of Professional Teams. In these presentations, he covers the more confusing points of the rules. He calmly and patiently answers any and all questions. We all leave satisfied, and then the next day something comes up that he didn’t cover, and we’re in the dark again.

But what you should take away from this is that he understands them and more than that, Vancouver are playing the MLS rules game very nicely indeed.

Adam Clement warms up at BC Place on 19 June 2013.

With a Bachelor of Science from the University of Western Ontario, and a Masters of Business Administration from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, Anderson is in charge of the finances of the First Team. He’s the one who will know that players on semi-guaranteed contracts who are released prior to July 1st will be wiped from the budget, while those discarded after will count for the balance of the season.

He’ll also know that this wasn’t the case with Adam Clement, whose salary of $35,125 meant he was an Off-Budget Player occupying a roster spot between 25 and 30. He could be placed on waivers at any time during the season and replaced just as easily. I know it sounds harsh, but it’s a fact of life in professional sports.

However, this was the case with Paulo Araujo, whose release in mid-April paved the way for them to take a flyer on Aminu Abdallah in early May. The jury’s still out on the 19-year old midfielder, but he already has an impressive CV, having previously trialed with Juventus, CSKA Moscow, and PSV Eindhoven.

Aminu Abdallah and Brayden Gant battle for the ball at the Burnaby Lake Sports Complex on 11 February 2013.

The talent is obviously there, but there must also be a reason that those clubs neglected to sign him to a permanent contract. At the time, Martin Rennie said, "Aminu is a big, young, powerful player with huge potential. He is a left-footed box-to-box player who can bring a lot to the team with his ability to win balls in the air and connect passes."

Personally, I find what isn’t said as interesting as what is. In the above example, I didn’t even bother to mention that Araujo and Abdallah are from Brazil and Ghana respectively. To other clubs, this means something. To the Whitecaps, it’s par for the course. Currently, MLS has stipulated that there may be no more than 152 internationals in the league.

The math is simple: 19 goes into 152 eight times. Each club started out with the ability to sign a mere 8 players from outside the United States. As Canadians are considered domestic players when they play for Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver, it would stand to reason that Vancouver would have only 8 players from outside Canada and the United States.

David Ousted and Nigel Reo-Coker horsing around at the National Soccer Development Centre on 10 July 2013.

As ridiculous as it sounds, one could argue that we have 16.

Our latest signing, goalkeeper David Ousted, hails from Denmark. His back line includes Lee Young-Pyo, the former Captain of South Korea; Andy O’Brien, who played for England at the U18 and U21 level before switching his affiliation to Ireland; Carlyle Mitchell, who is currently at the Gold Cup representing Trinidad and Tobago; and Johnny Leveron, who recently flew to Salt Lake City for a Honduran World Cup qualifier, only to fly back the next day so he could play against Chivas later that evening. After an elbow to the head, he was taped up, had three stitches put in at half time, and still finished the match. If that isn’t the epitome of a warrior, I don’t know what is. But I digress.

In the middle of the park, we have Matt Watson, an Englishman with an American green card. He’s joined by fellow countryman Nigel Reo-Coker, whose wife is an American. If he plans to stay in MLS, as we all hope he does, he’s going to have to look into acquiring American citizenship. Then there are our two Japanese players, Kobayashi Daigo and Jun Marques Davidson. As the latter’s name might suggest, he has an American father, and fortunately for us, citizenship.

Gershon Koffie shows off his athleticism to Omar Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza at BC Place on 11 May 2013.

Then there are the Ghanains, the aforementioned Aminu Abdallah and Tommy Soehn’s legacy, Gershon Koffie. Gersh has come to love this country, going so far as to apply for citizenship. He's already a landed immigrant. And although he can't be called up to the national team yet, he is open to the possibility. Let's not forget Kekuta Manneh, who hails from neighbouring The Gambia. One of these days I’m going to have to ask the green card-bearing winger why it’s called 'The Gambia' and not simply Gambia.

Up front, there is the two-time MLS Player of the Week Camilo Sanvezzo, and incidentally the only man to live up to the number seven shirt in Vancouver’s MLS era. He is joined by Kenny Miller, Captain of the Scottish national team; Darren Mattocks, an emerging talent for Jamaica. The Caribbean island’s loss is apparently our gain. As they failed to make the Gold Cup, we’re only going to lose three players for a month, Carlyle Mitchell, Simon Thomas, and Canadian Soccer Jesus Russell Teibert. This freed up the Jamaican to score the decisive goal in Saturday's Cascadia Cup clash with Seattle.

But that’s only fifteen you say? Well, our sixteenth has been something of a forgotten man this season. You see, Omar Salgado was injured before the season began and aggravated that injury during the year. He was born and raised in El Paso, a border town if there ever was one, to an American mother and a Mexican father of Spanish descent.

Omar Salgado greets the supporters at Swangard Stadium on 22 April 2012.

He competed for Mexico at the U17 and U20 levels before representing the United States at the U18, U20, and a single match at the U23 level. Through his father, he’s since acquired Spanish citizenship. Given his injury problems, right now his career is in jeopardy. But if he can make a full recovery, there’s no telling what he might do. He could even qualify to represent Canada should he remain with the Whitecaps for long enough.

The reason we are able to do all this is because in late 2010, we dealt Sanna Nyassi to Colorado for an international spot in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Two months later, we sent our second round selection in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft to Colorado for another international spot, this time for the 2011 to 2014 seasons. In 2012, we sent designated player Eric Hassli to Toronto for an international spot in 2012 and 2013, as well as their first round selection in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.

Although next year we’ll lose two of our extra international spots, we dealt Atiba Harris in the off season to Colorado for an international spot in 2015 and 2016. So barring any change in the rules, trades, or legal status of our players, we’ll still be able to have 9 internationals in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Jun Marques Davidson insists that the ball hit him in the chest, not the arm at BC Place on 18 May 2013.

As Matt Watson, Jun Marques Davidson, Gershon Koffie, and Kekuta Manneh are considered domestic players, we are quite within our rights to have 15 internationals. Had we retained our Canadian-born Swiss defender, Alain Rochat, it would have been 16, plus Omar Salgado. We haven’t broken any rules; we’ve just bent them, a lot.

As cosmopolitan as we are, we have not forgotten the Residency.

Vancouver has claimed the Men’s Canadian U17 Player of the Year award for the past five years running. Russell Teibert won the first two, Bryce Alderson, currently on a season-long loan to Charleston Battery, won it the next two, and Marco Carducci, who recently backstopped the U23s to their second consecutive Juan de Fuca Plate, won it in 2012, beating out his teammate and namesake, Marco Bustos.

Teibert and Alderson are both homegrown players, which makes them Off-Budget Players. They are joined by Caleb Clarke in that regard. As of May 1st, when the Players Union released salary information for 2013, Vancouver was leading the league in Off-Budget salary. At the time, we had committed more than $800,000 to players who did not count against the cap.

Darren Mattock plays as a left winger against Seattle Sounders FC reserves at Willoughby Community Park on 7 July 2013.

Darren Mattocks, Omar Salgado, Kekuta Manneh, and Corey Hertzog still fall under the category of Generation Adidas, while Carlyle Mitchell, then Adam Clement, and Simon Thomas don’t earn enough to occupy one of the first twenty roster spots. Even after releasing Clement, we would still have spent almost $40,000 more than the next best club, New England.

In terms of overall compensation, we sit fifth in the league at around $4.8 million. The Sounders have shelled out three hundred thousand more; of course they’re paying designated players Obafemi Martins, Shalrie Joseph, and Mauro Rosales $1.6 million beyond their budget hit. Montreal has spent almost five hundred thousand more than us, but again, their designated player, Marco Di Vaio, costs them $1.5 million over the budget.

Then there are the big boys, Los Angeles and New York. The Galaxy have more than doubled our spending thanks to the massive $6 million they spent on Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, which is again above and beyond the budget. And if that wasn’t bad enough, New York have spent $6 million more than we have due to $7.2 million they pay Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill over the budget.

Nigel Reo-Coker sees something out of the corner of his eye at the National Soccer Development Centre on 10 July 2013.

By comparison, we’re only spending $0.8 million above the budget on Kenny Miller. While the terms of Nigel Reo-Coker’s deal haven’t been released, it’s expected that there are some heavy performance bonuses in his contract, and he will very likely be a Designated Player next year. For now, he’s earning a mere $200,000. Good business if you ask me.

But he’s not alone. Prior to the 2012 season, Martin Rennie convinced Lee Young-Pyo to take a modest pay cut, only about $1.1 million dollars, to come and play for a club that finished dead last in the table the previous year. Later in the year he was joined by Andy O’Brien, who you have to assume, took a pay cut to come here as well. In 2012, the average Championship salary was around £5.5 thousand a week, but here he’s taken home only £2.3 in 2012, and £2.9 in 2013.

Of course, all the figures presented above ignore allocation money because allocation money is never published. And as frustrating as it might be for the armchair football manager, they like it that way. Each club knows exactly how much allocation money they have, and how they’ve spent it. The League knows. But the other clubs don’t.

Sébastien Le Toux is distracted by the Curva Collective during a Philadelphia Union corner at BC Place on 27 July 2013.

When the Whitecaps approached the Union about buying Sebastien Le Toux for allocation money, Philadelphia had no idea how much or how little Vancouver had to barter with. Vancouver didn’t know how much Philadelphia needed. So the negotiation was double blind. It has the effect of keeping such costs low, which in turn is helpful in fostering the parity that MLS seeks.

If you ignore the allocation money system, and assume that Vancouver has not used it to reduce the budget cost of any of its players, we have spent $2,763,625.00, leaving us $186,375.00 to play with. One would have to assume that a fair chunk of that went to David Ousted, whose salary won’t be released until August. For argument’s sake, let’s say he’s earning exactly that, although it is likely more.

The MLS rulebook is no longer than any of the other four ‘big’ sports in North America, in point of fact, it’s considerably shorter. The problem lies in what’s not written, or to put it differently, what's publicly available. The public’s perception doesn't help either.

Sam Adekugbe and Will Bates go up, but only one can win the ball at Willoughby Community Park on 7 July2 013.

We still have one open domestic roster spot, and can spend a maximum of $46,500. If this went to a homegrown player such as Sam Adekugbe, an English-born Canadian, we could spend any amount and it would not count against the budget. This would be my guess, probably in the $60,000 range. PDL player Ethen Sampson has also been suggested, but as a South African, we would need to address our lack of open international roster spots.

With Jay DeMerit and Omar Salgado of uncertain health, Kenny Miller and Camilo Sanvezzo in fine form, Nigel Reo-Coker poised to become a Designated player, and Joe Cannon and Lee Young-Pyo expected to retire at the end of the season, there are a lot of balls in the air. But we’re coping; we’ve managed our budget well, and can expect another Generation Adidas player next year thanks to Toronto’s first round selection. If the season ended today, we’d be selecting second overall, for our fifth top-five selection in three seasons. Not bad for a club that made the playoffs twice in that span (again, if the season ended today).

Reading that fact in itself is crazy enough, but it's a fine example of how some MLS rules can be worked in a club's favour.

There are rules, and there are clubs that seem to be able to circumnavigate and manipulate some of those rules to their advantage. There is no doubting that Los Angeles Galaxy are one such club, but as we've shown above, the Whitecaps are doing a pretty good job of it themselves.