The Dempsey Route: Allocation in focus, but another “rule change” a bigger issue for MLS

40 Comments

People keep hitting their heads against the wall regarding Major League Soccer’s allocation order, insisting new  Sounder Clint Dempsey should have entered the league through that process, but as Seattle General Manager Adrian Hanauer reminded everybody at today’s press conference, there are a number of ways players can come into the league. You can be a Designated Player, allocated, discovered, drafted, homegrown, etc., but you can only enter through one avenue. That explanation is unlikely to win over those of a conspiratorial bent, but nothing ever does.

The funny part is: There is reason to be skeptical about how Dempsey landed in Seattle, and it has nothing to do with allocation or the applicability of the Claudio Reyna precedent. As SI.com reported this morning, Major League Soccer paid Dempsey’s transfer fee. All $9 million of it (though an MLS source disputed that characterization). Since when does the league do that?

In the abstract, it’s not a terrible idea. The league is a collective entity, after all, and if they decide there’s a certain class of player they want to, on a league level, facilitate bringing to Major League Soccer, that could help MLS meet its goals. You’d need mechanisms in place to make sure there’s a certain amount of equitableness to the process, but when a Dempsey-like player says he wants to come, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing to make that happen.

[MORE: How Dempsey’s deal came together.]

The problems come when you consider where. And why. And for how much. And at what cost to competitive balance. Do players just get to pick their team? Hanauer did mention the reality that top caliber players are going to want say in where they go, so perhaps that’s a formality. But what happens if the league office balks at a price a team thinks is reasonable? And if a player’s willing to go to a number of places, how does MLS decide which club to steer him toward? And what happens when other teams start speaking out, implicitly saying they disagree with taking money out of the coffers for a particular player?

Perhaps you could trust the league office to try to make those decisions from an objective, unbiased perspective — to decide when a best of game decision is worth making — but then you remember what happened with Mix Diskerud this winter, where reportedly there was a difference of opinion between the league office and the Portland Timbers about Diskerud as a Designated Player. The disagreement implicitly forced the Timbers to choose between the young U.S. international and Diego Valeri, Portland owner Merritt Paulson eventually said. The league’s objective, unbiased view differed with a club’s.

Two paragraphs ago, this sounded good in theory – a mechanism that could land more Dempsey-level players in North American shores. Practically, it’s a mess. That’s not to say a series of clear, objective guidelines couldn’t be laid out, criteria which would give general managers some idea of how the mechanism’s used. But as it was applied to the Dempsey situation, MLS’s decision to pay for a player is problematic.

[MORE: Dempsey introduced, but picture still cloudy around acquisition.]

That said, there’s only so much we can draw from this example. Dempsey’s circumstances are distinct. At most, you can have one U.S. Men’s National Team captain at a time, let alone somebody still in his prime, extremely popular, who is the country’s most accomplished player at club-level, can still command a mid-to-high seven-digit fee, and wants to come back. Throw out the captain detail, and you could see a Michael Bradley or Jozy Altidore qualifying for this Dempsey Route, but all you’d still need all the stars to align.

That doesn’t mean this Dempsey situation isn’t a problem. More than a few prominent people around Major League Soccer are unhappy with how this went down. Either Seattle can afford Dempsey on their own or they can’t, the thinking goes. While everybody agrees getting Dempsey back is great for the league, there are a lot of things that would be great that clubs just can’t afford. How did Dempsey-to-Seattle reach the point where this new precedent needed to be established? And if another team impact player identifies an MLS team he wants to join, will that club get the same consideration?

Of course not. That’s why the Dempsey deal will leave a bad taste in a lot of mouths. And that’s why, when the years go by and this Dempsey Route doesn’t get utilized again, teams won’t feel any better. That will only feed the perception that Seattle’s received some rare, unfair benefit.

It is important to maintain perspective here, though. Dempsey is a great player, but he’s just one guy. There are teams still capable of beating the Sounders. Seattle’s no lock to even make the playoffs. They’ve gained a competitive advantage here, but not an overwhelming one.

The bigger issue is the mechanism. It’s the decision-making process. It’s Major League Soccer reaching into the bank and buying something that’s going to disproportionately benefit one team. Focusing on allocation being bypassed (no true) or some other conflict in MLS’s rules misses the point, after today’s report. The issue is the Dempsey Route – something that can only improve one team at a time, and only when MLS decides to do it.

Yes, the whole league is better off today than it was on Friday, but it’s not unreasonable to ask why Seattle is getting something special; something they didn’t fully pay for.