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From the Stump: Right Rule, Same Old Timing

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Although MLS’s timing for unveiling the core-player rule raises the usual eyebrows, one thing shouldn’t be overlooked with the rollout: It’s a very good rule.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

What had been rumored for a while finally came out this week as reports have been confirmed that MLS plans to implement a "core player" rule this summer that will operate somewhat similarly to a miniature version of the designated-player rule.

Although many details remain to be fully explained, as first reported by Ives Galarcep of Goal.com and clarified by Kurt Larson of the Toronto Sun, it appears a core player will be a player whose salary is somewhere within a salary range of approximately $600,000 to $1 million, but whose salary-cap hit will, like a designated player, be some amount lesser than the player’s full salary. In addition, it appears if a player’s salary is above the top end of the core-player threshold, a team can buy that salary down with allocation money to make that player a core player and, therefore, open up a designated-player spot.

Although long rumored, the rule has only now appeared imminent after Galarcep reported at Goal.com the LA Galaxy were close to signing Giovanni Dos Santos. Using the core-player rule, the Galaxy are reportedly set to buy down Omar Gonzalez’s salary into the core-player range, thus opening up a designated-player spot for the much costlier Dos Santos.

But the timing of the change, more than the rule itself, is the biggest surprise. After it had been reported just three weeks ago by the Orlando Sentinel's highly reliable Paul Tenorio that the core-player rule was "off the table for the time being" with details still being hotly debated around the league, it appears now that the rule will be in effect in time for the summer transfer window that opens on July 8th. And, at least outwardly, it appears this timing is connected to the Galaxy’s move to sign Dos Santos.

Not everybody is happy about that.

As Larson reported in the Toronto Sun on Saturday, TFC manager Greg Vanney is steamed, telling the Sun that MLS has "ultimately landed on (new) rules that are going to be significant for some teams and fairly insignificant for a lot of other teams," and complained that the Reds "don't have anyone who is a current DP who fits into that category. In the short term, it will only benefit certain teams. Eventually it will even out, but I always think these things are really challenging to do in the middle of the season."

First of all, there is an element of the pot calling the kettle black in Vanney’s comments. After all, TFC was the last team to benefit from a previously unannounced MLS rule change when the Reds were made prohibitive favorites to land Jozy Altidore after MLS announced Altidore’s landing spot would be determined using the until-then shunned allocation order.

But it’s undeniable that Vanney’s criticism of MLS has at least a nuggets of truth within it. From the abandonment of the allocation order with the signing of Clint Dempsey, to the order’s resuscitation for the signing of Maurice Edu to the blind draw that brought Jermaine Jones to New England, to the on-again use of the allocation order to send Altidore to Toronto, MLS has developed a sterling reputation for changing (or bending) its rules to at best facilitate the signing of major players to MLS or at worst direct those players to preferred markets in contravention of previously enforced rules. In light of this recent history, Vanney’s cynicism regarding the timing of the core-player rule is shared by many and is thoroughly earned by a league that has been far from above-board with the often convenient evolution of player-acquisition rules.

There is, however, a difference in this instance: Unlike the Dempsey, Edu, or Jones situations, this most recent rule change is neither a surprise nor functionally exclusive to one team.

The rule change that accompanied the Dempsey signing (which was a rule change designed to permit the signing of a particular player who desired to play only for a select handful of teams), for example, did not carry with it a broad range of applicability. To qualify for the Dempsey rule (as originally articled by the league), a team needed to be in position to sign a player who was otherwise subject to the allocation order to a designated-player contract. In reality, that only applied to a relatively small pool of players, and the odds were slim that many other teams would be able to avail themselves of the rule in the near term. The core-player rule, to the contrary, can be applied to a vast number of players across the globe, making it more likely that many teams can employ the rule almost immediately. Simply put, whereas the Dempsey rule was a rule of very narrow applicability making it a bit more suspect in light of concerns that MLS crafted its rules to the benefit (whether intended or merely coincidental) of certain clubs, the core-player rule is a rule of very broad applicability that does not carry that same concern.

Moreover, although, as noted, the timing of the core-player rule was a surprise, the rule itself is not. ESPN’s Taylor Twellman has been talking about the likelihood of some sort an additional designated player spot for almost a year:

The Worldwide Leader’s Jeff Carlisle wrote with now-impressive precision about a "SuperMax DP" back in January. So anybody who is surprised by the rule itself has had their head in the sand. And any front office that hasn’t been gearing scouting resources toward filling their core player slot since these discussions began at least six months ago when Carlisle reported them is just downright negligent.

Which brings us back to Vanney’s comments. TFC’s hubris aside, if the Reds had properly prepared there is no reason Toronto couldn’t move to take advantage of the core-player rule in the summer transfer window by signing a core player. While true that TFC couldn’t re-designate one of their current designated players as a core player because each of the present DPs are too costly, Vanney and company could certainly make a move to sign a new player within the core-player threshold. And without question Toronto could use a major, albeit secondary contributor to Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore. But Vanney’s comments suggest that Toronto’s perceived superstar myopia isn’t just a matter of perception. Unlike what may turn out to be a considerable handful other teams in MLS, Vanney’s comments unwittingly revealed that TFC has been caught unprepared for a rule change that looked imminent, if not necessarily immediate.

So, although the timing of the rule change isn’t ideal and MLS is deserving of continued criticism for its habit of making rules on the fly to permit the acquisition of big names (perhaps arguably coincidentally) by large-market teams, the rollout of the core-player rule is not the most egregious example of this. And, in light of the fact that MLS is announcing the rule change before the acquisition of any players under the core-player rule, the change represents progress (albeit modest progress) for a league that has developed a reputation for ad hoc rulemaking.

But aside from the timing of the rule, there is one point about the core-player rule that has gone largely undiscussed: It marks a very positive change in emphasis in MLS roster rules.

To date MLS has framed its roster rules toward maximizing flexibility for the league and clubs to acquire high-priced, big-name players. Through the designated-player rule, the league’s willingness to subsidize the payment of certain transfer fees, and exceptions from allocation mechanisms for designated players of a certain threshold, MLS has intentionally designed its rules to encourage a top heavy salary structure with big names at the top to attract people to the box office and elatively modestly paid players throughout the rest of the roster to control costs.

In the era in which the majority of MLS clubs needed the novelty of big-name players to bring people through the turnstiles, such a structure made sense. Only the most cynical MLS observers could deny the wisdom and ultimate success of the Beckham Rule in its inception and, frankly, to this day.

And, although many of the first generation of DPs weren't high-priced big names, the way MLS teams use the designated-player rule is changing. With MLS economics steadily improving, more and more teams are reaching for higher-priced designated players. Slowly but surely, the $700,000 designated player, for example, is going the way of the dodo bird. Without a change in course, MLS appears destined for a growing disparity between designated-player salaries and the wages of those players that fill out the rest of the roster and, indeed, even the starting eleven.

But with many MLS fanbases now much more mature than they were in 2007 when the Galaxy signed Beckham, the current designated-player rules seem more than capable of scratching the big-name itch. Instead of the novelty of national-team and international stars driving fans to MLS stadia, the majority (and perhaps vast majority) of MLS markets are ready to expand their fanbase through higher-quality football rather than recognizable stars alone.

MLS doesn’t need to sign 10 more players that make $7.5 million per year as much as it needs to sign 100 more players that make $750,000.

The core-player rule is a very good first step toward building the depth that MLS needs to make meaningful progress toward being a truly major soccer league. Although the first known instance of a club employing the core-player rule looks set to be in a way that permits that club to sign a high-priced designated player, in the ordinary course it appears the rule will be used most often to bring in players that fall within the core-player threshold.

A lack of talent at the top hasn’t been what has held back MLS teams in CONCACAF Champions League; it’s been a lack of depth against Liga MX sides that don’t spend as much at the top of their roster as many MLS teams, but spend considerably more from roster spot four on down.

Moreover, with MLS academies starting to produce solid domestic talent at a steadier clip, focusing on improving the middle- to top-end depth of MLS rosters will only facilitate development of young talent into higher-caliber contributors. It’s one thing to train with a team of solid professionals with two or three exceptional players. It’s another thing altogether to train with a side that has a half-dozen or more players that are capable of playing in the best leagues on this continent and in many of the better (if maybe not quite the best) European leagues. Finally, a greater number of players with salaries in the high-six figures provides greater incentive for the best domestic talent to stay in an MLS that would be stronger and better able to put them in an environment in which they will be challenged consistently.

So the shift in focus toward this level of player that the core-player rule represents is a positive one. But it shouldn’t stop here.

As long as MLS is committed to a salary-cap system (which is certainly the foreseeable future), the league should look to incrementally increase the number of core-player spots and shape the salary cap to allow MLS teams to bring in an increasing number of core players.

Thus, although the timing of MLS’s rule change is characteristic for a league that is deserving of continued criticism and skepticism regarding the even-handedness with which it goes about rule changes, that should not entirely overshadow the core-player rule in substance.

Simply put, the core-player rule is the right rule for MLS to adopt at this point of its development, and MLS should look to double-, triple-, or even quadruple-down on the rule in the coming years.