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Reining In MLS’ Foreign Player Addiction

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At the conclusion of a successful 2007 season, which saw MLS’ attendance at it highest level since the inaugural season of 1996 and media coverage beyond once imaginable levels, the league opted to increase the number of international squad spots to eight from the previous four senior and three youth internationals.

This new rule has created a situation where clubs no longer have to consider waiving a foreign player to sign another (since few clubs are at their limit, considering green card holders are exempted from the eight player limit), as was the case for much of MLS’ existence. Eight internationals is four more than were allowed throughout most of MLS’ existence – a period of time when the league helped the growth of the US National Team as well as the CONCACAF region in general.

MLS teams rushed to fill their new-found foreign player slots. Some sides like D.C. United unveiled four foreign signings in a single press event and other clubs talked up the signing of foreign players, most of whom had limited or no national team experience and weren’t the types of players who could transform MLS and grow the club game in North America.

For every Luciano Emilio and Christian Gomez, there seem to be as many, if not more, Mathias Cordoba’s or Franco Neil’s. This situation mirrors that of 1998 when, using the addition of the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion as a justification, the league added a fifth foreign player spot for each MLS side. This led to signings of the likes of Marquinho, Roger Thomas, Gilmar, and the unforgettable Jerry Tamishiro. The next year the foreign player limit was dropped back down to four.

Much like ten years earlier, MLS clubs now seem to rely on reputation or nationality to sign foreign players rather than their actual value in enhancing the product on the field. In other words, if players have not been regulars on their national teams, in most cases they will not contribute positively to MLS. Franco Niell, Franco Carracio, Jose Carvallo, Mathias Cordoba and others are evidence of the problems MLS faces in simply signing random foreign players with no international pedigree. Even those players who have escaped being waived by their clubs in the league, like Ivan Trujillo, seem to be delivering less on the pitch than was advertised, while Americans who come back home from Europe this season, like Nat Borchers, Ramiro Corrales and Josh Wolff, have paid instant dividends for their MLS clubs.

The situation as it currently stands is not conducive to the goal to build soccer in this region and produce a respectable product while helping the development of homegrown players. For example, just last week, Toronto FC waived Andrea Lombardo, a Canadian forward with some promise, to sign yet another foreign player. This leaves TFC with only four Canadian field players on its squad, and as Canada’s lone FIFA-sanctioned first division professional side this is appalling and totally unacceptable.

I propose significant changes to MLS’ squad structure assuming the salary cap and current roster limits remain in place:

  • All players from the CONCACAF region are exempted from foreign player limits.
  • Players under 21 may be signed with no restrictions.
  • Each MLS team is allowed three non-CONCACAF nationality players over the age of 23, and only two of these players may not have been called into their respective national team squad (not played, a key distinction between my proposal and the work permit rules in England) at least 50% of the time in the last three years.

    In other words, at least one of the three players must be a current national team player. In addition, all three players will be up to review at the end of each season. If they do not feature in at least 50% of the matches they were healthy enough to play in while under contract in MLS, they will be released from their contract at year’s end. These spots are not transferable between clubs.

  • Designated Players are exempted from all above criteria. Each squad may have one non CONCACAF nation designated player and one DP from the CONCACAF region for a total of two DPs. These spots are no longer transferable between clubs.
  • Toronto FC must maintain a squad with at least ten Canadian players.

With these simple changes to MLS, squads will be more competitive and also deliver more quality in the terms of football. In addition, the continued development of players from the CONCACAF region will be stressed over the continued signing of mediocre talent from outside the region. In the long term, MLS will be a better product, and the national teams of the CONCACAF region – and ultimately the region’s competitiveness on the world stage – will be beneficiaries of the new MLS.

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