The single-entity league, that plays home to Canada's three top-flight professional squads, has come under increased scrutiny of late for occasionally bending its own rules when it suits it best.
It's hard to criticize something that nobody is entirely sure exists. There isn't a hard and fast MLS rulebook to be found anywhere. So when questions are raised, like they have been over the recent signing of U.S. national team star Clint Dempsey, they're always prefaced with, "Well we have to take MLS' word for it, but ..."
And it's always a big, pregnant pause-filled 'but.' To fill in the back side of the 'Deuce' story a bit more, over the weekend the Seattle Sounders introduced Dempsey
as their newest signing. Coming in on a massive transfer from England's Tottenham Hotspur, a deal reportedly in the $40-million US range, it has rightly been called a watershed moment for the league.
And for a league that likes to mock up so-called watershed moments every six months or so, this truly is one. At 30-years-old, arguably still in the prime of his career and undoubtedly the best player on the American national team, the move is as big, if not bigger than the arrival of David Beckham to MLS in 2007.
That might seem like a stretch given Beckham's name and reach, but for MLS, which constantly finds itself struggling to attain credibility, Dempsey's return legitimizes the league in a way that David's sideshow never could. He is a sublimely talented player who could have had his pick of teams in England or Europe but has chosen to return to the league that gave him his start - in a World Cup year, no less.
But where his arrival will signal a new beginning for MLS on the pitch, so too should it spur change away from the field - where it is the mechanics of how Dempsey came back that has been steeped in controversy.
Clarification of rules
In the weird and wild world of MLS, returning players traditionally go through an allocation process. Teams who hold the number one pick in the allocation order have first shot at a potential talent that has indicated they would like to rejoin MLS' ranks.
Portland, which currently holds the number one position in the allocation order, wasn't even in the conversation of the Dempsey sweepstakes. Dempsey gave MLS his three preferred destinations (which reportedly included Toronto and Los Angeles as well) and those teams were then given the option to negotiate with the attacking midfielder.
Obviously Portland, and its very vocal owner Merritt Paulson, was less than happy about the decision. In fact, off the record, there was one very unhappy soccer executive making his feelings known to a number of reporters and outlets this weekend.
So much so, that MLS issued a statement Saturday, attempting to quell some of those criticisms.
"For new players signed by an MLS club as a Designated Player, the allocation process does not apply. Examples of this include previous high profile player signings like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and US national team player Claudio Reyna when he signed with New York," Todd Durbin, Major League Soccer executive vice president of player relations & competition, said.
On the surface, it seems simple enough. The league is clarifying a rule. The problem is, despite MLS' assertions that this is a rule that has been in place since 2007, try finding anyone who knew about it.
In fact, try finding a player, a coach, a former coach or an executive who claims to know all the rules of MLS, and you'll have found yourself a liar. While MLS is absolutely governed by some hard and fast laws, a very big grey area also governs it. Or if you'd like to think of it another way: MLS has itself a get out of jail free card, to be used anytime it wants to tweak some of those laws in a way it figures best suits the league.
And there have been a number of recent examples of MLS using that card and "passing go" to ensure it collects its figurative $200.
Prior examples of intervention
In December of 2011, the L.A. Galaxy signed 18-year-old Jose Villarreal to a homegrown player contract - a move that provides for certain allowances under the league's salary cap. The problem was Villareal didn't meet some of the requirements to qualify for such a status. In prior signings, MLS had stated that a player had to be within a team's academy for a year before they were eligible to be signed as a homegrown.
MLS, not wanting to potentially lose the Inglewood, Calif., native to a foreign league, stepped in and ruled that the Galaxy could lock up the talented midfielder. They then came back and said he wouldn't be eligible for first team selection until he completed his homegrown requirements. He made his debut a few weeks ago.
In the summer of 2012, another example of how those grey area rules are applied arrived on a desk north of the border, when MLS intervened in a potential Toronto FC signing.
Depending on who you believe - and at this point most believe Toronto's version of the events - TFC had offered respected Swedish international Olof Mellberg a designated player deal that would pay him in the seven figure range.
According to a number of people - past and present - in Toronto, MLS stepped in and nixed the deal.
MLS commissioner Don Garber even famously went on ESPN during the MLS All-Star game to flat out deny the league had killed the deal.
"Let's put Mellberg aside, the league hasn't nixed that. Toronto has decided that it economically didn't make sense. And at the end of the day, it was a decision that they felt was in their best interest," Garber told the television audience.
Garber isn't lying. But like your neighbourhood bookie does, MLS just made Toronto see it was in its best interest to play along. The league didn't block the deal, per se, but they did make it clear that they didn't want their teams setting a precedent for MLS, by signing non-domestic centrebacks to big money deals.
Make a change
Individually, the Dempsey scenario can be passed off and forgotten. The league has handpicked which teams it wants which stars to play on in the past. It's a strategy that has served them well for helping to build the league profile. Think Thierry Henry in New York. Or, obviously, Beckham in L.A.
At the same time, put collectively together against a number of other questionable tweaks, it also undermines what MLS has worked hard to earn - legitimacy.
For what it's worth, the league seems completely comfortable remaining where it is - with its rules somewhat laden in secrecy, even if it creates the impression of an MLS that is only quasi-competitive in nature. It certainly doesn't hurt MLS to be able to hide behind that veil when it comes to dealing with money-hungry agents who are always out for more.
But just as the league has grown in stature in recent years - maturing from what began as a few American families and conglomerates owning their sporting play-things, to a 19-team league
where nearly every franchise is independently owned - so too must the league grow in structure.
Making MLS rules widely available to everyone would eliminate the doubt that stems from these grey area issues.
Or to put it another way MLS: Make. Life. Simple. And help the fans of your league better believe in these major moments as they come your way.
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