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MLS Rules Changes: A closer look

Guten Morgen everybody. There is plenty to get to on the American soccer news front this morning. The Juan Carlos Osorio press conference took up most of my afternoon on Tuesday and therefore kept me from blogging on two other newsworthy developments.

I will get to the U.S. Under-23 team’s Olympic qualifying draw later this morning but for right now I wanted to talk about Major League Soccer’s announcement of changes to its roster guidelines. For those of you who missed it, MLS revealed that it has changed the number of international players team can have. Now, instead of being limited to four senior international players, MLS teams will start out with as many as eight slots that can be used on international players, a number that teams can increase via trade.

Yes, you read that right. Not only can teams have up to eight foreign players, they can trade for other team’s foreign slots. So in theory, a team could field a starting 11 made up entirely of foreign players. A scary thought? Not really. It is actually a necessary evil brought on by the league’s rapid expansion.

The changes sound a little more drastic than they really are. As it stood in 2007, teams were allowed to have as many as seven foreign players, but only four could be senior international players (with three or more slots available for youth internationals, players under 25). Now, MLS has done away with distinguishing between senior and youth internationals.

So the actual increase in total number of foreign slots per team is only one more, which isn’t all that extreme. It is the least the league could do to try and prevent the quality of play in MLSfrom dipping because of expansion. Some reactionary folks may gloss over the numbers and decide that this will hurt the American player but that just isn’t the case here. What hurts the development of American players is a reduced quality of play in this country’s top league. There are still plenty of roster spots to go around, and more are on the way.

Does this mean teams will stop searching for reasonably-priced young foreign talent, which is what a good number of youth internationals were? Not likely. The salary cap is still spandex tight and most teams aren’t going to be able to afford bringing in eight veteran foreign players considering their likely salary demands (well, unless you’re the LA Galaxy). The goal will still be to find affordable talents who can become stars like Juan Toja and Maykel Galindo.

Yes, these rules changes COULD mean that a team fields an Arsenal-like lineup made up of ZERO domestic players but that is pretty unlikely given salary constraints as well as the simple fact that few, if any, MLS teams have the scouting resources to start bringing in hordes of good and inexpensive foreign talent. It is just more practical for MLS teams to scout and identify American talent. You can argue that Chivas USA might be tempted to bring in hordes of Mexican players, but that didn’t really happen when the team was formed, why will it happen now? Chivas USA’s four best players are three Americans (Guzan, Kljestan, Razov) and a Cuban (Galindo) so the Goats aren’t likely to get rid of that talent in a belated attempt to stick to the All-Mexican roots of Chivas de Guadalajara.

The real interesting twist on this rule change was the news that teams can now trade these foreign slots. Let’s face it, there are some teams in the league that just have a tougher time attracting foreign players than others. Now, instead of a small market team like a Columbus or Kansas City struggling to fill its foreign slots, those teams can deal slots for useful tools such as players or draft picks.

This also allows teams that are in a better position to make use of more foreign slots, like Chivas USA and Toronto FC, to deal for those slots. Toronto must be especially giddy with the rules changes, especially receiving two extra foreign slots. Yes, those two slots must be used on American players, but you won’t hear Mo Johnston complain about that considering how tough a time he had last season in finding quality Canadian players.

One thing you can look forward to is a flurry of trading because of these rules changes. Johnston, for one, will be looking to horde foreign slots like a overzealous squirrel gathering acorns (and not necessarily to acquire Canadians). The question is whether some teams with reputations for shying away from the trading table will make use of these changes to benefit their teams or stand pat and watch the league’s better player personnel people outwork them. Let’s face it, not all MLS front offices/coaching staff are created equal and these changes should show us who is good at this aspect of roster building and who isn’t.

These changes weren’t the only ones announced by MLS. The league is also FINALLY doing away with the rather dumb policy of allowing teams to retain the rights of players they waived. Actually, the rule last season gave teams the right of first refusal on waived players, so the rule change doesn’t mean all that much. It does allows players to move around more freely, which is always a good thing.

In other news, the league revealed the newest allocation rankings, which determines what teams get first dibs on players that multiple teams are interested in acquiring. Here is the list:

  1. San Jose
  2. Toronto
  3. Real Salt Lake
  4. Los Angeles
  5. Colorado Rapids
  6. Columbus Crew
  7. NY Red Bulls
  8. FC Dallas
  9. Chivas USA
  10. DC United
  11. Kansas City Wizards
  12. Chicago Fire
  13. New England Revolution
  14. Houston Dynamo’

Why does this order matter? Well, let’s say Andriy Shevchenko decides he wants to play in MLS and the Galaxy and Red Bulls both want him and put him claims for him at the same time. Guess who gets first crack at him? Yep, the Galaxy. This applies to U.S. national team players and any other top-flight talent MLS decides should be allocated using the rankings. Let’s say, for example, that Benny Feilhaber was coming to MLS. San Jose would have first crack at signing him, or it could trade that right.

And lastly, MLS announced that it was grandfathering Landon Donovan, Eddie Johnson and Carlos Ruiz as designated players for the 2009 season, meaning none of the three will count as designated players for the next two seasons despite earning salaries well in excess of the league maximum. Interesting development to say the least. Why? Well, Eddie Johnson looks like a very good bet to leave MLS this winter and Ruiz’s current team, FC Dallas, doesn’t even want him. Let’s face it, MLS might as well announce tomorrow that Landon Donovan will be grandfathered as a designated player as long as he is in MLS or as long as Phil Anschutz still owns the LA Galaxy. Who are we kidding already?

What do you think about these guideline changes by the league? Share your thoughts below.

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