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When a Shield Becomes a Sword: The Donovan Ricketts Deal

The Timbers used some unconventional salary-cap tactics to unload Donovan Ricketts, keep Jorge Villafana, and earn some allocation cash along the way.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

When news of the Timbers’ acquisition of Adam Kwarasey leaked out early this month, the writing on the wall spelled the end of Donovan Ricketts’ time with the Timbers.

Ricketts, one of the highest paid goalkeepers in MLS, regressed in 2014. While Ricketts was still a solid goalkeeper this past year, he wasn’t near his Goalkeeper of the Year form from 2013. And once milk starts to turn, it usually doesn’t turn back.

So it was clear Ricketts would be leaving Portland through one mechanism or another. While a trade seemed possible, the annual offseason amnesty provision appeared to be the most likely means of clearing Ricketts’ contract off of the Timbers’ salary cap. Ricketts being taken in the expansion draft, however, seemed farfetched.

As it turned out, the Timbers used all three mechanisms to move Ricketts to his next team.

The annual amnesty provision provides:

A Team may buy out one (1) guaranteed player (including a DP’s) contract during the off-season and free up the corresponding budget space. Such a buyout is at the particular MLS Team’s own expense.

In sum, the amnesty provision provides a team can buy out one player’s contract each offseason. While the club must still pay the player’s salary, the salary does not count against the salary cap.

In the days leading up to the expansion draft, Orlando City knew they needed to find a goalkeeper to spell long-term keeper Tally Hall while the former Dynamo netminder recovers from a torn ACL suffered in August. While the Timbers certainly would have been open to a trade for Ricketts, the Jamaican’s salary would likely be far too steep for the Lions.

The Timbers had another problem, however, because Jorge Villafaña – a 2014 revelation and the presumptive starter at left back in 2015 – was exposed in the expansion draft.

Not wanting to lose Villafaña, the Timbers called Orlando City to discuss the Lions taking Ricketts early in the expansion draft. If Orlando City did so, the Timbers could put Villafaña on their protected list for the remainder of the draft, ensuring Sueño would remain in the Rose City.

To make the move more enticing to Orlando City, the Timbers offered to pay a portion of Ricketts’ salary in 2015, relieving the Lions of some of Ricketts’ salary cap burden. Typically when a team does so, the retained portion of the traded player’s salary stays on the trading team’s salary cap.

In this case, however, the Timbers used the annual amnesty provision on the remaining portion of Ricketts’ contract. It would seem under the terms of the annual amnesty provision that would clear that remaining portion of Ricketts’ contract off the Timbers’ salary cap. In other words, the Timbers would still be responsible for paying Ricketts, but it wouldn’t count against their salary cap.

Keep in mind that the Timbers were almost certainly going to use the amnesty provision to get out from under Ricketts’ contract in any event. Thus, if the Timbers had done so without orchestrating a deal to go along with it, they would have had to pay Ricketts’ full salary even if it didn’t count against the cap.

But by working the deal with Orlando City, the Timbers were able to protect Villafana, received at least the $50,000 allocation-money consolation prize for losing a player in the expansion draft, and will apparently end up paying less off-cap cash for Ricketts’ salary because Orlando City is picking up their portion.

Using the amnesty provision in this way is somewhat unconventional; typically amnesty is used to part ways with a player currently on the roster. Here, the Timbers used it to wipe the vestige of Ricketts’ contract off their salary-cap books. While this isn’t explicitly permitted by the rule, it also isn’t explicitly prohibited.

In essence, while the amnesty provision is typically used as a shield to protect a team from the burden of a player’s salary the following season, here the Timbers used it as a sword to leverage a deal that permitted the Timbers to keep Villafaña, earn some allocation money, and save some off-cap money.

The amnesty provision is potentially quite valuable used in this way, as illustrated by the following example:

Assume for a moment the Timbers don’t have an obvious player they would like to use the amnesty provision on next offseason. At the same time, also assume the Timbers want to bring in a true number-six to play alongside Diego Chara. Will Johnson would seemingly come up on the trading block.

Make no mistake, Johnson is a good player and even at his current contract would likely carry some value on the trade market. But imagine the Timbers could offer Johnson to other teams with the added incentive that Johnson would only count for $100,000 on the other team’s cap.

Using the amnesty provision in the same way the Timbers did with Ricketts, they could make this offer. The Timbers would absorb the remainder of Johnson’s contract above the $100,000 paid by the recipient team and then use the amnesty provision on that remaining portion of Johnson’s contract to wipe it off the salary-cap books.

As a result, Johnson’s trade value would burst through the roof. While the Timbers would have to front the cash to pay the remainder of Johnson’s salary, Johnson’s additional value would easily make this worthwhile.

Now, at this point this is purely a hypothetical – the Timbers are clearly committed to Johnson right now. But the hypothetical illustrates how a team can use the amnesty provision to leverage maximum value out of a trade.

This year, however, the Timbers did have use for the amnesty provision – they needed to free up the salary-cap space Donovan Ricketts’ salary occupied. Even though the Timbers’ annual amnesty was otherwise spoken for, however, the Timbers were still able to use it to leverage a trade that yielded considerable value – the retention of Jorge Villafaña’s services and at least a little bit more allocation money.

Sometimes shields make pretty good swords.