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How MLS’s new Under-22 initiative impacts the rest of the Timbers’ offseason (and beyond)

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What the newest MLS roster rule means for Portland’s pursuit of a center back this winter, as well as future players

MLS: Portland Timbers at San Jose Earthquakes Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Like a little kid who just can’t stop adding Lego blocks onto their already gargantuan creation, MLS has added yet another player acquisition mechanism to its growing thesaurus of roster rules.

The much-rumored but yet to be officially confirmed under-22 player initiative is reportedly a new roster rule implemented by the league that is set to be in place starting this season. While nothing has been formally announced or reported by the league, there is enough out there that we can understand the gist of how the rule will work and the impact it will have on MLS teams acquiring players.

There’s also enough out there to start to put together the big implications the rule could have on the final moves the Portland Timbers make this offseason, as well as on moves they could make in future offseasons.

Let’s break down what those are:

The new rule and how it’s rumored to work.

Despite this initiative not yet being officially announced from the league, based on what beat writers who cover the league have reported, we can piece together the broad brushstrokes of how the initiative will function. Most of this is borrowed from Sam Stejskal’s great breakdown in The Athletic, which you should check out if you want to get deep in the weeds.

Similar to most other roster rules in MLS, this one is meant to give teams greater flexibility in acquiring players while staying under the salary cap. The main points:

  • There are no limits on the costs of acquiring a player under the age of 22, as it counts towards the salary cap.
  • Players under the designation will count towards a team’s salary budget at either $150,000 or $200,00, depending on exact age.
  • Qualifying players must be younger than age 23 by the end of their first season in the league, and a player can maintain their status until the season wherein they would turn 25.

In layman’s terms, the initiative basically functions like the designated player rule, only specifically for acquiring players under the age of 22. It allows MLS teams to spend as much as they need to get young talent, while not worrying about how transfer fees would count against their overall budget charge.

MLS: Colorado Rapids at Portland Timbers
Pablo Bonilla is a player currently on the roster that would have been eligible for a U-22 designation this season.
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Teams will be able to sign at least one and potentially up to three players under this new initiative, depending on their number and age of the DPs already on the roster (more on that in a bit).

But you didn’t come here for the minutiae of MLS roster rules (as riveting as that may be). While not yet actually announced, this rule is already playing a part in Portland’s plans for the rest of the winter.

How the initiative impacts the Timbers’ 2021 offseason

It could in many potential ways, but really in one way specifically: Their pursuit of a young center back.

Timbers GM, Gavin Wilkinson, has openly talked about wanting to acquire a young center back, specifically one that the team can develop into a larger contributor and potentially flip in a future sale for a big profit. Heck, he even outright said that the team was planning on using the under-22 initiative to acquire the player. But even without that admission, the potential signings has all of the hallmarks as the exact type of player the initiative incentivizes.

Portland’s go-to starting center back pair from 2020, Larrys Mabiala and Dario Zuparic, are age 33 and 28 respectively. Bill Tuiloma (25) is on the roster, but is decidedly second choice, and while good things have been said about draftee Zac McGraw (23), he has yet to break into the first team side. It’s clear that the Timbers need additional young talent in the center of their defense.

MLS: Portland Timbers at LA Galaxy
Love ya lots Larrys, but you’ve got some miles on those legs.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Signing a young defender using the new initiative could have a lot of upside for the Timbers. Best case, they find a gem and develop him into a solid starter and difference maker for the next five or so years. Next best, they find a player that shows talent in flashes, just enough to the point where they can transfer him for much more than their acquisition cost. The new rule means that Portland is decidedly looking at this signing with a more long-term view, rather than just short-term gain.

In addition, the new initiative could have implications beyond this offseason. Specifically, it could be a key tool for ushering in the next era for the Timbers.

How this could impact future offseasons for the Timbers

The new rule presents an opportunity for the Portland Timbers to jumpstart their roster construction in the coming years, specifically by helping the roster to become younger and gain more financial flexibility to bring in talent. And it starts with how they handle their designated players in the coming years.

As referenced earlier, teams can sign from one or three U-22 players depending on their number and age of current designated players. A team that has three DPs over the age of 23 — and can’t have their contracts bought down with TAM — can sign one U-22 player. Teams with at least one DP under the age of 23, or at least one of any age that can have their contract bought down by TAM, can sign up to three U-22 players.

All of that means that the teams that stand to have the most roster flexibility and the most to gain are the ones that get their balance in age of their DPs and TAM signings right. If you invest too much in players who are older, you don’t get to reap the benefits of the U-22 rule.

Which brings us to the Timbers. Their current DPs — Sebastian Blanco, Yimmi Chara, and Jaroslaw Niezgoda — are all over the age of 23. It’s unknown at this time if any of their contracts are within the range of being able to be bought down with TAM. As it stands this season, Portland can’t get the most of the rule just yet, which for now seems to be fine with their goals for the current season.

Beyond this season, though, Portland has some tough decisions to make if it wants to take advantage of the chance to inject more younger promising talent into the squad. How they handle the DPs may be pivotal, especially when you consider the future of this roster.

As this roster is currently constructed, it is very much relying upon three players over the age of 30 to be the key difference makers: Blanco, Diego Chara, and Diego Valeri. That’s probably a good bet for 2021, but becomes more questionable in the years beyond. Father time is undefeated, no matter how many beautiful goals Valeri scores against it, or how many beautiful tackles Chara delivers to its legs.

SOCCER: MAR 08 MLS - Portland Timbers v Nashville SC
Look, I don’t want to talk about the end of the Diegos Era either, but... it’s coming folks.

Using the U-22 initiative could be one way that Portland begins to plan for life after Dos Diegos and Blanco. It presents a whole new menu they could take advantage of when building rosters. It could lead to them bringing in the next young starlet in the midfield, or getting increased profit from players they put the time into to develop, which they could then spend on a difference-making DP.

How the Timbers navigate the post-Diegos reality will be its biggest and most consequential challenge they’ve faced since signing them, and how they use the new U-22 player initiative will likely have a huge impact in how well they handle that challenge. And as it was with designatedpPlayers and TAM, how well the Timbers use the newest MLS toy may be the difference in them leading the pack or falling behind.