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MLS gets cloudier, not more transparent, with Clint Dempsey’s Seattle Sounders deal

Aug 5, 2013, 7:44 PM EDT

Clint Dempsey, Adrian Hanauer AP

SEATTLE — Question marks surrounding United States captain Clint Dempsey signing with Seattle Sounders FC persisted on Monday. Major League Soccer owners appear happy to have fans and media in the dark about much of their process.

“I think we’re in our adolescence as a league,” Sounders general manager and part owner Adrian Hanauer said during Dempsey’s introductory press conference at CenturyLink Field on Monday. “I sit on the product strategy committee (and) the competition committee, and we talk about transparency, and we want to continue to have more and more transparency in the league. I think that’s a good thing for fans. It is something that we’re working towards.”

After the press conference, he continued the train of thought by reiterating MLS’s goals within its single-entity structure.

“The objective is that we have a partnership of owners, and our goal is to improve the league and the profile of Major League Soccer in this country and globally, or our profile vis-à-vis the rest of the world,” Hanauer said. “We’ve created a rule structure that we think best allows our league to grow in a rational way. You can ask me about a specific rule, but we have a decent level of transparency in some areas. In others, maybe we have less transparency, but we’re just trying to build the game and do what we need to do to run a healthy enterprise.”

During the conference, Hanauer offered some insight into how the Sounders were able to sign Dempsey without being subject to the allocation process, but he declined to comment further on why media and fans continue to be left clueless on many facets of the player acquisition process.

“We have different mechanisms by which players can come into the league,” he said. “You can’t come in through multiple mechanisms. You can’t come in as a Designated Player and an allocation player and a Discovery Player. So he came in as a Designated Player.”

Seattle’s biggest rival, the Portland Timbers, holds the top spot in the allocation order. If any United States national team player signs with the league, the team at the top of the order is supposed to have the right of first refusal to sign him.

(MORE: A brief look at MLS roster rules with regard to Clint Dempsey signing)

On Saturday, after Dempsey’s deal became official, MLS executive vice president of player relations and competition Todd Durbin released a statement saying Dempsey was not subject to allocation because of his Designated Player status.

“For new players signed by an MLS club as a Designated Player, the allocation process does not apply,” Durbin said. “Examples of this include previous high-profile player signings like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and U.S. national team player Claudio Reyna when he signed with New York.”

Reyna signed with the Red Bulls in 2007, in the first year of the Designated Player rule. The rule allows each MLS franchise to sign up to three players for more than the league maximum salary of $368,750 for a player over age 23.

Designated Players only count for the maximum amount toward determining a team’s salary cap situation. If a U.S. national team player signs as a Designated Player, then he is not subject to allocation because of the special nature of the deal.

Common wisdom surrounding player acquisitions in MLS suggests that if a deal would raise the profile of the league, especially on a global stage, then team owners are usually willing to make concessions to the player involved.

“Let’s be realistic: A player of Clint’s quality and pedigree has a say in where he ends up,” Hanauer said. “That’s just the reality of certain players that end up in our league.”

Hanauer said Monday that Seattle has courted Dempsey for at least the last two years. It’s unlikely that any other team was willing to shell out Dempsey’s reported $8 million annual guaranteed salary.

(MORE: Report: How Dempsey’s move came together, new details on Deuce’s Seattle deal)

Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported that MLS, not the Sounders, paid Tottenham Hotspur the $9-million transfer fee — but Hanauer declined to confirm both the number and who paid it, except to say that “the league generally won’t pick up transfer fees.”

The key word in that sentence: “generally.”

Even that brief sentence seems to indicate that the set of guidelines team officials use flex much further than the MLS Roster Rules and Regulations published to the world. Never has MLS’s single-entity structure seemed as insular as this week.

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