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Free Robbie Rogers! Why MLS roster policies discourage returning U.S. internationals from signing up

May 1, 2013, 10:45 AM EDT

FILE: Footballer Robbie Rogers Reveals He Is Gay As He Announces Retirement MK Dons v Stevenage - npower League One Getty Images

Assuming Robbie Rogers can get his soccer performance sorted out, how great would it be to have this guy back in MLS? Not just for reasons of establishing greater inclusiveness, but because the league needs all the quality it can get, and American-born quality is a ginormous bonus.

How about Herculez Gomez? He’s a proven goal scorer and a U.S. national team leader. Every MLS club could use more of that.

There are about a dozen well-known former MLS men in Europe or Mexico who might, now or later, favor a second go-round in U.S. Soccer’s top tier league. But a big obstacle stands in the way, and that’s a shame.

Yesterday’s news of Rogers potential return to soccer might – and really should – shine a new light on some restrictive MLS player policies, especially as they pertain to U.S. internationals.

Rogers is training with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Good on him. He’s presumably got plenty of good soccer in him, and the league needs as many high-quality Americans as possible. Throw in the broader message of MLS embracing cultural diversity and this is a “win, win, win.”

But there’s a problem: Chicago holds Rogers’ rights. And Fire manager Frank Klopas has reiterated his desire to make the former U.S. international be part of his roster;’s Kyle McCarthy writes extensively on that one here. That makes Rogers hostage to the Fire and the league’s player acquisition quirks.

In this case, Rogers is not subject to Major League Soccer’s allocation rules – but the effect is the same.

Returning U.S. internationals have a tougher time getting back into MLS due to the league’s roster rules.  Herculez Gomez is going through something just like this: He is making noise about returning to MLS, and says it might be sooner rather than later. But Sporting Kansas City still holds his right.

Want Gomez? Call Peter Vermes and start the wheeling and dealing.

But Gomez and Rogers may have more control over their MLS destination than guys like Brad Friedel or Carlos Boganegra, whose MLS rights are currently not held. A potential MLS return means moving through the allocation system. So they have no idea where they might land; depends on who is up on Major League Soccer’s allocation ranking.

The allocation rules are there for a reason: they help distribute the top talent, theoretically ensuring that every man worthy of the U.S. national team pool doesn’t decide to play for New York, Los Angeles, Seattle or one of the next clubs along the list of desirables.

But the law of unintended consequences kicks in, and the net-out here is that a Tim Howard (some day), a Bocanegra, a Gomez or even a Rogers has a harder time convincing himself to get back into the league.

Given the lack of choices and greater control, they may just “punt,” which means signing up for another overseas hitch (or another contract in Mexico.)

And then Major League Soccer loses.

  1. CaliforniaRedskins - May 1, 2013 at 11:05 AM

    Of all the MLS roster quirks, this does seem to be the most problematic. I do get the genesis of this rule, but as you stated the unintended consequences seem to outweigh the benefits. I think that this rule only goes away when someone with enough juice wants to (re)enter the league, but is unwilling to do so under the current construct similar to the way Beckham changed the rules when he came. I’m not sure that Rogers or Gomez is that guy. Of the current US players, I think that Dempsey would be the closest scenario to that happening, but I don’t think he would be a big enough reason either. Ultimately, this will be another thing that MLS has to grow out of, but that probably won’t happen until the quality / depth of the league increases to the point where a single good but not great player can’t significantly shift the balance of power.

  2. dfstell - May 1, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    I tend to think this is a dumb rule. We already have a salary cap in place to address competitive balance. MLS should look at their competitive balance upside is worth the downside of keeping some players away.

    Of the two parts, the allocation order is the most odious. That’s just rewarding clubs randomly. I DO understand a case like Herc’s where you could say that SKC “tried to keep him” but was preventing by a bigger spending foreign club. I think it’s fair to give SKC *something* for making that effort, but there should be some automatic buy-out for another club versus something you have to haggle over.

    Herc said SKC offered him a 20K/year raise? Make the club that signs Herc give SKC 20K/year in allocation money over the term of the contract.

  3. whordy - May 1, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    This is one more dumb rule in a league that has plenty of them.
    It’s a shame they are falling over themselves to accept oil money and further increase the # of “have” teams but won’t fix roster quirks like this that hurt the little teams.

  4. abrown76 - May 1, 2013 at 11:26 AM

    The Crew would have never had Rogers in the first place if not for these kind of rules. He would have gone straight to LA.

    We can’t let players just pick where they want to go. It causes both a biding war and a talent shift to the big markets – two things MLS has worked hard to avoid.

    Any ideas how to avoid that? Pool of allocation money the league can tap to help make the trades happen?

    • whordy - May 1, 2013 at 11:45 AM

      My mindset is you are not going to avoid that. That’s reality, some cities are simply more attractive. LA is ALWAYS going to be more attractive than say, Columbus. That’s reality. In every league in every sport.
      My beef is that the rules the MLS has in place, such as this one, HURT the little teams more. Big name teams will ALWAYS be able to attract better talent, and even with the DP rule the big teams will have owners more willing to pay big salaries.
      But what about small teams that want to build through youth? Opps, the roster rule are so restrictive they can’t hold on to young players that you plan to grow over time, cause it uses the same roster spots the MLS journeyman who can help now but isn’t any good uses.
      If they want to get there with great scouting, well there is a limit on foreign players, and this American rule. So what if some random, forgotten former NT player wants to come and play for Columbus, but they can’t cause their rights are owned by who they played for 6 years ago.
      Basically they need to accept this reality and let teams wheel and deal on their own. Allocation drafts? Discovery claims? Let the teams do what they can to the best of their ability.

      • abrown76 - May 1, 2013 at 12:17 PM

        I think the homegrown spots can’t be used for journeymen. I agree that this is where the smaller teams will place alot of stock to stay competitive.

        I like the current rule. Sure, it is confusing, but I think parity is great.

        We only talking about a handful of players here. If they’re only here to play in one city, I’m guessing that their priorities are elsewhere. Look at all the “stars” that NYC has attracted, but were there for the city and not the game.

    • Steve Davis - May 1, 2013 at 11:46 AM

      “The Crew would have never had Rogers in the first place if not for these kind of rules. He would have gone straight to LA.” …. That’s a great point. He’s a Southern California kid. That’s why I said it’s a tough issue, one the league and the players union needs to sort out a little better.

      • takethelongview - May 1, 2013 at 2:48 PM

        Actually, I think the person you’re replying to has confused the issue because he actually references the draft. While comparable to the allocation/rights retained procedures in that both they and the draft are designed to ensure competitive balance through the league, the draft is for players just turning pro. That is surely how Rogers ended up with Columbus in the first place.

        The gist of the original post was this: MLS has a set of unusual rules in place to distribute mid-career players re-entering the league. While these rules may preserve competitive balance (justification for), they may also discourage such players from coming “home” (justification against). No other league has such impediments in place; therefore, MLS may wish to revisit the rules.

        By contrast, the draft is not unusual. Every league in North America operates a draft for players in that stage of their career. Thus, it is NOT reasonable to suggest Rogers would have gone to LA at first because in NO other sport would the player have had the option.* (In fact, the Homegrown Player rule, a means by which a player can bypass the draft, is also unique in North American player acquisition rules. So MLS giveth and taketh away–not that the new-fangled Homegrown rule helps Rogers.)

        *–Two examples come to mind of players who at least partially controlled their own destiny despite being subject to a draft, both from the NFL: John Elway compelled Baltimore (Colts) to trade him in the ’80s, and, more recently, Eli Manning compelled San Diego to deal his rights as well. But note that neither challenged the draft itself…they just used their own personal star-power to get what they wanted. Few players will have such cachet.

        Personally, I believe the league’s need for cost control and competitive balance at the moment justify the occasional lost player. Yes, it’s hardest on the current players. In any other sport, once the post-draft contract expires, they can control their own destiny via free agency. Clearly, free agency (post-draft) is the solution here as well. But do you really think free agency would be a healthy step for MLS at this moment in time? Or put another way, at what point in time will the players’ association have enough muscle to force its own resolution to this conundrum?

    • CaliforniaRedskins - May 1, 2013 at 11:52 AM

      I think that the current salary structure in MLS makes a bidding war and a talent shift to big markets an either or situation. As far as MLS not letting players go where they want to go, that is a product of a young league almost being afraid of its own shadow a little bit. Everyone always talks about determining when MLS will have “made it;” when the league is able to operate and allow players the rights that players enjoy everywhere else, that will be one of the benchmarks. Also, I think that MLS is smart to ensure that there is a good amount of parity in the league, but it would do well to remember that the pursuit of parity should not trump the pursuit of quality. There is nothing wrong with having teams that are consistently better than everyone else as long as the structure is such that a small market team can succeed if it is managed well and it makes good investments.

  5. orvillelloyddouglas - May 1, 2013 at 1:38 PM

    Robbie should play for the team he wants to be on. I think the Chicago Fire just want Robbie because they know he would be excellent publicity for them. Imagine, Chicago Fire having Rogers the first openly gay male soccer player on their team it would be huge news probably international media attention. Rogers doesn’t want to play for Chicago Fire he wants to be in LA where he is most comfortable and close to his family. So I believe Rogers should go where he wants to which is LA Galaxy.

    But, are people even sure Rogers REALLY wants to come back? Yesterday, Rogers was simply training, nobody knows for certain if he wants to come back?

    Also, is the MLS going to stop the homophobes from giving Robbie Rogers a hard time? What is the MLS going to do if Rogers comeback to ensure his safety from the bigots?

  6. midtec2005 - May 1, 2013 at 3:41 PM

    Rules like this were designed to protect the league when it was still not very popular. It made sense for a time. The league has grown so much thought that they need to get rid of it now. The MLS rules are constantly evolving as the league grows, as they should. I’m not sure they should do with the rule entirely, but they should at least make an exception for U.S. internationals. Another rule that needs tweaking again is the DP rule. I think Robbie Keane is right, it is time for the DP limit to be moved to 5.

  7. tylerbetts - May 1, 2013 at 3:44 PM

    Maybe I’m just over simplifying things, but it seems to me a minor rule change could prevent a number of these from being problems:

    Make a Designated Player exempt from any other rules.

    If a player is not currently under contract, and a team is willing to use one of their three DP slots on him, it doesn’t matter who owns his rights or anything else like that. They can sign him.

    Seattle wants Gomez? Fine, but they have to get rid of a current DP. That seems likely.
    L.A. wants Rogers? Fine, but they have to give up hope of keeping Omar or acquiring Kaka or Lampard. I doubt L.A. is willing to make that tradeoff.
    Someone wants to bring back Boca? Make him a DP.

    You keep the general idea of the player movement restrictions and rules. The “popular” teams – L.A., NY, DC, etc. – can’t just stockpile anyone they want because they want to play there. And, it’s expensive in terms of roster flexibility to trump all rules, so there’s a deterent to doing this unless you have exactly the right target in mind.

  8. bellerophon30 - May 1, 2013 at 5:41 PM

    Why does a league with a salary cap need such restrictions on player movement? That’s the basic argument going on here, and MLS has no rational defense. Have one or the other. I find it hard to fathom a modern sports league where when your contract expires, you’re not free to sign with another team. At least MLS players can go somewhere else……..oh right, work permit issues. MLS is the most anti-player league in the US, easily, and one reason that it won’t be a “major” league anytime soon.

  9. talgrath - May 1, 2013 at 6:52 PM

    This sort of situation is the exact reason these rules are in place, everyone wants to play for LA, Seattle, NY and other big market teams in metropolitan locations with solid fan bases. If these rules weren’t in place, a player could just go play for another league (ideally a less competitive league to make himself look better) for a year and then come back to the US to play for the team they like. I’m a Seattle fan and a change to this rule could benefit us, but that doesn’t mean I think it should go through. If LA wants Rogers (and all I’ve seen is a bunch of speculation) then they should make a deal with Chicago. Sure, Rogers might be good for the national team, but that doesn’t mean MLS should change their rules. If you start catering to the top talent in the league you become like the NBA, where a group of talented players build the teams instead of general managers and coaches; nobody should want that.

  10. petewlsn - May 1, 2013 at 10:18 PM

    in the end it hurts the league, the player and our national team. the league get’s hurt because it misses out on a major talent. the player loses bc now he’s in a situation he doesn’t really want to be in, whether that be getting allocated to a team who’s style of play doesn’t really suit him or just these roster quirks making it unable for said player to come home to MLS at all… which segue’s into hurting the national team. bc now, instead of having a potential left winger (or whoever it may be in the future) get playing time and rounding into form, he’s forced to look for options abroad that may not pan out and leave him riding pine. sort it out Don. And also.. the big name cities/teams are going to get their players regardless. if the Galaxy want a robbie rogers caliber player they’ll get a robbie rogers caliber player. but wouldn’t you rather them grab an American kid over a foreign talent?

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