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The changing identity of … Major League Soccer

Aug 4, 2013, 6:56 PM EDT

AT&T MLS All Star Game - Chelsea v MLS All Stars Getty Images

In time, Saturday night will be seen as a watershed moment in Major League Soccer, the first time the 17-year-old league was able to convince both a prominent player and his club to play ball on a big transfer from Europe. That the player happened to be the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team makes the occasion more memorable (and Seattle’s circumstances are certainly different from almost every other team’s in Major League Soccer), but luring any player of renown who is still capable of dressing for one of England’s top teams would be celebrated as a league-wide victory.

Euro-centric fans will downplay the significance, and not without  reason, but within the scope of the league, Dempsey’s acquisition is undeniable progress. This is a milestone many fans have wanted to hit for some time. In addition to keeping the Omar Gonzalez-types from jumping once their first contracts play out, fans want to be able to compete for European-caliber talent; specifically, U.S. internationals. That the U.S international is the first to be reeled in makes this a boon.

It’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer, considered by many as more of a selling league, is now a buyer. Put another way, is the immediate future that of an importer, not an exporter? Given MLS’s structure, there’s no single answer to that. Even though they sold Fredy Montero earlier this year, Seattle’s clearly a buyer. When the LA Galaxy (seemingly inevitably) join Seattle and spend big for a third DP, they’ll affirm their status as heavy hitters. But the vast majority of MLS clubs still can’t compete with strong bids from clubs from even mid-tier European leagues. Still, between the established powers, the Pacific Northwest teams, and the two Eastern Canada clubs, more and more MLS clubs are capable of being players, not spectators.

[MORE: The changing identity of ... Seattle Sounders FC]

But not everything is sunshine and roses in MLS Land. Seattle’s spending is worrisome for some in the league, particularly those concerned that the growth of a few clubs threatens to dwarf the capabilities of others. Between expanding the Designated Player rules and instituting retention funds, the league’s affluent teams have more avenues to distance themselves from the pack. The extent to which that (as opposed to Seattle’s unique circumstances) influenced the Dempsey deal is debatable, but as part of the overall landscape, some see it as cause for concern.

Then there’s fan frustration, most present in Portland, who not only are Seattle’s chief rivals but sat on top of the allocation order when Dempsey rejoined the league. Many’s readings of the rules assumed the Timbers should get the rights to the returning U.S. international, even though those rules conflicted with the Designated Player guidelines. The Claudio Reyna precedent of 2007 seemed to solve that matter (the former U.S. captain returned straight to Red Bull on a DP deal), but for those suspicious of the league’s motives, the conflict was enough to fuel ire …

Ire that was on display Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field:

Infuriated by their rival’s coup, Timbers fans may be taking an excessively literal, inflexible view of the rules, which is not to say they don’t have a point. The written rules available on MLS’s web site do conflict, so much so that the league felt the need to issue a clarification after Dempsey was signed. The explanation was clear, consistent, and may have answered many’s questions, but for those who’d already decided the Dempsey deal was shaky, there was no tearing the tin foil from their heads.

[MORE: In pictures, Clint Dempsey is unveiled in Seattle.]

If Major League Soccer really is in that adolescence we discussed in the Seattle post, this is their teenage naivete. And like all mistakes of our high school days, this is mostly innocent – something to learn from. It is, however, a small reminder that it’s time to grow up. There are responsibilities and expectations that come with adulthood, and any hint that you’re making things up as you go along will lead people to question your maturity.

But this isn’t a matter of two steps forward, one step back for MLS. The Dempsey capture is a decided leap forward, even if there’s a stubbed toe on the landing. For all the confusion people found in MLS’s rules, the league is in a notably better place today than they were two days ago. That’s almost the definition of progress.

  1. perrinbar - Aug 4, 2013 at 7:34 PM

    It’s been pretty consistent that MLS is extraordinarily opaque regarding a large number of their rules. The fact that no one seemed to know the deal with DPs and allocation is just another instance. Portland fans are just sour graping it, but it isn’t entirely unwarranted. LA has seemingly benefited from suddenly unearthed loopholes in the past and it seems much like that happened again here. MLS just needs to get accustomed to playing with the big boys and be more transparent about these things. Ahead of time, even. Instead of after the fact.

  2. smorris793 - Aug 4, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    “The explanation was clear, consistent, and may have answered many’s questions,”. Only it wasn’t. It kept referring to Dempsey as new to MLS. If memory serves he played a few years in NE, making him a returning player, not a new one. Also not discussed was how they let Joseph renegotiate his contract after the guaranteed salary date.

    • mrpaisley - Aug 4, 2013 at 9:39 PM

      Dempsey was sold by NE, they got money, and lost any rights they had to him. When he returned, he was returning as a DP, with a contract with Seattle, therefore not subject to allocation order. Pretty damn clear.

      • cvo105 - Aug 5, 2013 at 2:09 PM

        Nope. He was still current USMNT palyer, and nothing on paper states DP>allocation. No one has shown it yet. Until then, it is only implied by league office after the fact.

        Reyna’s DP deal was done after he had retired form USMNT, so allocation process didn’t apply to him regardles of whether he signed as DP or not.

        Pretty damn unclear.

  3. bobinkc - Aug 4, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    I find interesting that MLS mouths platitudes about being an importer of soccer talent while, in actuality, any player who becomes worth a hoot is grist for the European leagues and leaves his MLS team in the dust. Then MLS whines about becoming a dumping ground for aging European players who want to finish off their careers by making DP money over here instead of being relegated to the bench over there.

    Then there are the school systems that several MLS teams are trying to develop; why bother when a player that a team has brought up through the system becomes an MLS starter and then heads off to Europe to play for more money, albeit while riding the bench a lot.

    MLS is already a stopover for seasoning for non-US players who are looking to move to Europe as soon as they can. Can anybody else spell FARM TEAM LEAUGE? (And don’t even start with the sour grapes for SKC losing Espinoza and almost losing Kemara; I just don’t even want to hear about it.)

    • valiantdraws - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:19 AM

      http://prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com/2013/03/01/major-league-soccer-is-a-sellers-league-and-thats-ok/

    • randomhookup - Aug 5, 2013 at 9:20 AM

      Can anybody else spell FARM TEAM LEAUGE?

      Sometimes the jokes write themselves.

    • charliej11 - Aug 5, 2013 at 10:05 AM

      I will save you time and summerize for bobinkc: Waaaah.

  4. cherry314 - Aug 4, 2013 at 8:33 PM

    The Portland fans need to talk to long-time MLS fans. The original player acquisition rules were like Russia: “a riddle wrapped In a mystery inside an enigma” and ruled by fiat. Remember the “trade” of Valderrama?

    • mvktr2 - Aug 5, 2013 at 2:22 AM

      LOL I wish I could say I was a fan back in those days. However a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma ruled by fiat sounds like american governance, corporatism, and most especially courtroom rules and the (in)justice system.

      • wfjackson3 - Aug 5, 2013 at 9:08 AM

        That’s shenanigans. If you spend 4 hours on wikipedia and .gov sites, you can get a damn good grasp of the way everything happens in our federal government. It is actually pretty clear all around when you get into it.

  5. dfstell - Aug 4, 2013 at 10:57 PM

    I’m generally a big nay-sayer on the single-entity, communist nature of MLS. But….the key to growing things means easing away from that model as opportunities arise. I mean, we can’t hold back Seattle and LA and a few others forever just because Colorado can’t keep up. The trick is exercising judgement about when to bend/break/change the rules.

    This was worth it. One of the leagues biggest clubs gets to sign the USMNT captain. I mean….you have to do that deal. Maybe it’s a little unfair to Portland, but maybe Dempsey didn’t want to play for them or maybe they weren’t willing to pay as much. The point is that whatever compromises were worth it to get this deal done. This is where judgement comes into play. I mean, you don’t bend the rules like this again if someone like Parkhurst wants to come back. And we actually saw the “system” working properly when Boca and Goodson came back. Maybe they bend the rules again if Bradley wants to return.

    • randomhookup - Aug 5, 2013 at 9:22 AM

      How did they bend the rules? The allocation order doesn’t apply to DPs (though they should have been clearer in the written rules).

    • charliej11 - Aug 5, 2013 at 10:07 AM

      IF he says it enough, even without proof, it will be true in his own mind at least.

  6. shrekpdx - Aug 4, 2013 at 11:41 PM

    Well that’s where the problem is. For whom (player and team) do you bend the rules? Earlier in the year scuttle but was MLS nixed Portland’s Mixx deal due to price and/or the contract situation (being owned by the league – which I bet Dempsey has some kind of clause). That’s the exact problem and why Portland specifically and MLS fans in general are frustrated.

  7. hildezero - Aug 5, 2013 at 12:57 AM

    @bobinkc

    Shut up.

  8. Anoesis - Aug 5, 2013 at 1:12 AM

    How about a bit of an identity change here on PST? You know, like reporting on games instead of just speculating about teams? The Galaxy beat Juventus yesterday. Apparently no one at PST could find the game on TV.

    • mvktr2 - Aug 5, 2013 at 2:42 AM

      AMEN! I don’t mind this article and the thread of discussing the issue that’s woven through PST, mlssoccer.com, etc. so much as some other stuff. I really don’t care nor think it’s in any way a big deal that Juan Agudelo saved money on his car insurance!

      More game stuff. Juventus was dead-legged and disregarded their opponent. 3-1 – nuff said.

      • wfjackson3 - Aug 6, 2013 at 12:33 AM

        I have been saying the same thing for months. Or, well, when I bother to stop by and spend 5 minutes sifting through all of the gossip rag style articles for something of merit.

  9. charliej11 - Aug 5, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    Ummm, no Richard, Obafemi Martins already broke that barrier.

  10. lyleoross - Aug 5, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    The reason you have rules is so that people feel they have a fair and equal shot. Even the perception that there is not equality can cause a problem. Nothing about this feels or looks fair.

    The rules issue is only half the problem, more important is the issue of club dominance. Ask baseball how having a subset of dominant clubs goes long term. There’s a reason why that sport has gone from number one to number three, and will probably fall further. It is dominated by a few big clubs that seem to write the rules to suit themselves.

    In the long run, a system that favors a handful of clubs will not do as well as one where there is equity. Please see U.S. style football for a system that does this better than most.

    Allowing Seattle, LA, and New York to dominate a league that is just beginning to thrive is not likely to result in a the long term success of the sport. It just means we will go down the baseball path that much sooner.

    BTW – please don’t come back and tell me that the dominant team model works in Europe. It doesn’t, look at the profit margins, look at what has happened to the smaller clubs, and realize that only the Champions League has real merit any more. They’ve killed their national leagues.

  11. SD1 Timbers Special Forces - Aug 5, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    The implications for this Dempsey deal could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for MLS. With the World Cup next year Americans will become interested in Soccer again.If the US does well AND you have the lead striker playing in Seattle TV ratings will jump quite a bit. That jump could mean that at the end of 2014 right after the World Cup when negotiations for TV start MLS will have hopefully a great summer of people watching MLS because of the USMNT doing well in Brazil. This has long term implications beyond just the storyline of Rich Club vs Poor Clubs. Although it exists, this deal could mean that the League could repay each market with Dempsey level talent after a new deal. Or at least raising the minimum wage.

    • donjuego - Aug 5, 2013 at 7:47 PM

      I have a hard time following your assumption. In 2010, a member of the MLS LA Galaxy scored the goal that sent the nation into a tizzy, talked about by everyone, and it hardly affected MLS attendance or ratings. What evidence is there that Dempsey will do more?

  12. thesportsbizblog - Aug 6, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    Portland might have a legitimate complaint under the existing allocation rules but given the circumstances, Seattle was the only viable option. Dempsey had given the league a list of three clubs he was willing to come back to play for and Portland was not on the list, the other two being Los Angeles and New York. It is far better for MLS as a whole that a player as significant to the league as Dempsey is not go to one of those other two franchises as much to preserve the idea that there are other teams in the league that can sign a big name player as anything else. It will obviously help competitive balance and besides Seattle may be the only club outside of LA and NY that could afford to pay him.

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