MLS

For fans’ benefit, MLS should deal in fact before speculation

Photo: Paul Rudderow

If you’re a Twitter user and regularly follow the soccer pundits, two big topics have been bantered around the past three days. Going to the MLS website to search on these two topics gets you two different results, however, which creates a bit of a problem.

By searching the name, “Diego Forlan,” you will get at least five articles from July 8th and 9th about the Uruguayan former Golden Ball winner. You will also get a plethora of other rumor mentions that have come out over the course of the spring.

By searching the phrase “retention funds,” the only pertinent hit you obtain is from June 29th, at the time Graham Zusi was resigned by Sporting Kansas City. Shortening it to just “retention” gets you nothing else relevant.

You might say, “So what?”

MLS media model

MLS followers have become accustomed to a media model which goes counter to other sports in the US and how football is covered in other countries. In both of those situations, independent media outlets dig for the news and publish items that they feel would interest and benefit consumers.

In the US, space and time are limited in news outlets. Newspapers cannot devote inordinate pages for sports, and ESPN can’t spare too much Tebow Time on Sportscenter for leagues they feel don’t register with viewers (whether the metrics they use are fair or not). MLS simply doesn’t warrant a lot of time or resources in the minds of those who allot those necessities.

That has meant that MLS has taken much of the reporting into their own hands. Most sports have media arms, but the MLS arm is quite extensive. There is nothing inherently wrong with the league doing the work the mainstream media can’t or won’t do. Two weeks ago I wrote about MLS+, yet another piece of this. Though the program is a joint venture with NBCSN, clearly Major League Soccer is driving this.

There is a fine line that must be walked though, and media within MLS may tempt that line a bit too often.

Dealing in rumors

The trend with some of MLS’ “reporting” through their media arm seems to be edging more towards tossing around the speculative. Recent speculation on transfer rumors have focused on Victor Valdes and Giovanni dos Santos. On Tuesday it was confirmed that dos Santos has made a move to Villarreal.

My guess is that mongering these rumors is an attempt to replicate a bit of the tabloid press overseas. I suppose it’s good-natured fun to think about your team possibly getting a superstar. (We’ve all seen comments sections of various blogs containing a few Union fans’ pining for Didier Drogba and others, right?)

By all accounts, Los Angeles made an offer to Mallorca, so this isn’t quite idle speculation. In the case of Valdes, he made a comment to ESPN about being open to a move to MLS or China.

But the Forlan rumor looks very questionably sourced. MLS jumped on it because Toronto’s Globe and Mail from Toronto published an article stating matter-of-factly that the deal was all but completed. No sources were identified, but MLS didn’t hold back from pointing fans to the story.

The fact Forlan was quoted as shooting this down particular rumor doesn’t help the case much. Now TFC fans’ hopes of a bonafide international star hitting the pitch at BMO Field have potentially been dashed, adding insult to an already injurious season. I hope for their sake that the Globe and Mail was right.

Still, this is another case of an unsubstantiated bit of speculation being trumpeted by the league through its media arm.

Why so hush-hush on the Retention Fund?

In the case of the “retention funds,” you have a 100 percent factual, implemented policy sitting there, and the only mention has been an off-the-cuff remark by Kansas City coach Peter Vermes in a story about Zusi getting a new contract.

“The difference is that there are certain monies available,” Vermes explained, “that I have the ability to use within the salary cap, that are what are called ‘retention funds’ – to be able to retain certain players within your roster. That allows us to bring him under that DP level.”

When I read the quote the first time, I sort of rolled my eyes and forgot about it. Again, MLS followers are used to the sly meandering of money behind the scenes.

Well lo and behold, during the Chicago-Sporting KC match on Sunday, Alexi Lalas blurted out that he had asked for clarification about these “retention funds.” His nebulous regurgitation of what was told to him made me roll my eyes yet again. What I gathered from his comments is that this “retention fund” rule was put into effect months ago. Teams get $250K to use on three different players to abate the exodus of top young players from the league.

There was a slight rebuttal by Taylor Twellman, but the discussion quickly moved on to other topics. I had hoped to see an article detailing exactly the way the new salary mechanism would work, but I guess Lalas’ explanation was good enough for the league.

The question is if that’s good enough for fans.

Rules up front

MLS needs to get things right here.

There’s no problem with them advancing idle speculation about a foreign star coming to play in the US or Canada.

Before you do that though, make sure you get your ducks in a row with the nuts and bolts of what is going on now. This “retention fund” policy isn’t something being bantered. It isn’t one of a possible five plans to help teams deal with an ever-restrictive cap. It’s in place. Now.

From my perspective, I really don’t need the league to be specific about player salary info. It’s nice that the Players Union publishes that data twice a year, but that’s not the issue.

The issue is the perception that creative bookkeeping benefits certain franchises. When a policy in place for months is mumbled out in a press conference, it doesn’t give anyone much faith that the system itself is consistent and true. It’s even more suspicious when the only teams that have benefited thus far are all legacy teams in the league (LA, NY, KC, DC).

The league may believe fans don’t want to hear about finances, but that’s probably far from the truth. The way MLS handles finances is confusing, and I’ve often called for the league to eliminate the frustrating “allocation money.” It’s simply another intangible item that irritates fans, much like a transfer rumor that turns out to be false. But I’m not sure I need specifics on who’s getting what, just that every team is getting a fair shake when it comes to a salary cap that is quite restrictive.

To fully complete this puzzle though, there was an article published. It wasn’t by MLS, but it was by Goal.com’s Kyle McCarthy, who also writes the New England beat for MLSSoccer.com. The timing of the retention fund disclosure, apparently months after its implementation, leaves you wondering if the whole picture has been divulged.

So here’s a thought for you: Did Peter Vermes mess up? What if he hadn’t mentioned this? Would Alexi Lalas have been stirred into asking about the fund? Would fan sites eventually put two-and-two together and wonder how teams could afford to do this under a cap?

What would you rather read about: another one in ten chance rumor of an aging star looking to pad his retirement account via a season or two in MLS? Or an in-depth article detailing how the league is trying to make things easier for teams like the Union to keep Jack McInerney, Amobi Okugo, and others?

For me, the answer would be the latter, but reading about both would be fine. As long as the second article gets written. What MLS observers want is the satisfaction of knowing the salary rules are applied fairly across the board.

Convince me of that, and they can speculate all they want about Diego Forlan.

7 Comments

  1. Yeah, and to make it worse, 250K is nothing anyway. That’s the salary of a bench warmer for a top half team in league 2. It’s not going to change anything.
    So, lack of transparency aside, it’s a tiny drop in the pool anyway.

    • I found that to be pretty puzzling also. I guess the goal is to stop players from going to the Danish league, Championship, etc. If players are going to move to Europe, they need to go to top 10 leagues and $250K might be enough to do that.

      • I do believe that you’ve hit the nail on the head here, Jason; I’d imagine that money is to keep defections of solid but not spectacular MLS veterans to leagues where the play isn’t much better (if at all), but the pay is at least a few hundred thousand more per year.

    • James – Are you referring to League 2 in England? If so, you’re way overestimating their pay.

      In the 2009/2010, the average weekly pay for a League 2 player was 757 GBP which translates to about $60k per year (I used today’s conversion rates). In the Championship, that number was $315k.

      • Yeah sorry, I was trying to recall from my days of FM what the payrates were. It’s been a while

  2. Excellent article. I’v been wondering myself recently about how proper it is that MLS seems like a primary reporter for a vast majority of rumors concerning the league. It’s definitely an odd situation. I think it is made worse by the lack of American soccer reporters. If Lalas stopped trying to explain soccer tactics (which he does poorly) and used some connections to be more of a reporter, the game would benefit.

  3. Maybe they should raise the salary cap instead of having these Byzantine rules.

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