MLS Rules

MLS teams need autonomy in evolving market

Photo: Earl Gardner

“Single Entity” is a phrase that is etched into the skulls of Major League Soccer fans. The concept is clearly definable, and still it is shrouded in secrecy, and in some minds, conspiracy. Made necessary to avoid the sins of the past (runaway spending by the original North American Soccer League) the Single Entity model ensured that revenues and costs would be leveraged across the league.

But that was nearly 20 years ago, when soccer on television was an oddity. Today, MLS is competing in the media market with the big boys overseas. And to win this battle, we’ve seen the league change. From the evolution of “Super Clubs” in LA, NY, Seattle, and,  now apparently Toronto, to the contentious negotiations over the salary of a certain returning USMNT defensive midfielder, it begs the question, “How can a single entity league structure represent all of these interests?”

The answer is, “It can’t, and it shouldn’t.”

There are many ways the Single Entity model is affecting clubs negatively at the local level. Let’s see how.


The Michael Farfan transfer rumors were barely rumors at all. On December 20th, Cruz Azul had all-but announced the acquisition of Farfan, along with Jose Villarreal from LA and Rafael Baca from the Earthquakes. The situation clearly became awkward for all of the MLS teams involved. The Union were forced to remain silent about Farfan’s departure until the deal had been approved by the league office. Two days later, MLS gave the go-ahead to announce the transfer.

The Union came out of the saga with much criticism from fans and media about how the transfer was communicated. But while one can be unhappy with the sale, the team itself was left to operate within the system league rules.

Transfer policy

The Maurice Edu soap opera continues into its second week. We’ve seen the rumors, and we’ve heard John Hackworth and Nick Sakiewicz speak after the SuperDraft about this subject.

Regardless of how this is actually going down, MLS is completely involved in this transfer deal. While it appears the Union will pay the transfer fee in order to remain in the Allocation process, the league has a direct interest in controlling salary escalation. Don Garber said as much when speaking recently about the next Collective Bargaining Agreement: “But we still have to manage through the fact that the league is losing between $75 (million) and $100 million a year.”

On the other hand, Toronto F.C. has blown every other club in MLS out of the water, with their two recent high profile signings, including that of Michael Bradley, whose transfer fee was paid by a league gushing $1-2 million per week.

We haven’t even gotten into the issues with Vancouver, another team struggling to cope with the realities of the single entity. There is a real problem when one team’s expenditures dwarf most other salary budgets, while those other teams are perceived to be constricted in their ability to pay competitively (see Camilo, the league’s top scorer who bolted for a payday in Mexic0).

A time for autonomy

Teams must tread lightly in the current system. That’s not the way it should be. The league should not be there to serve as the guardian of the lot.

Of course MLS should always have the power to set economic rules in the best interest of the league. The larger sports leagues in America all have some form of Salary Cap or Luxury Tax. But teams in those leagues have the autonomy to do all of their business freely.

That’s the direction MLS needs to go. It needs to gauge its profits or losses, and to set realistic limits on spending. But if a team wants to overspend on a defensive midfielder, let them succeed or fail with that decision. Granting this freedom gives fans the chance to have more faith in their team and the process, while reducing skepticism that the league favors certain teams over others.


  1. Autonomy also means not paying for the transfers of “special” players. I know that you alluded to this already, but to take the point one step further, if a team can’t afford a player, why should the league buy him for them? And why do 2 teams get a gift like that while every other team has to play by a different set of rules? This truly turns me off from our league, which sucks because I want MLS (and the U!) to succeed, but they’re making me care less and less with each injustice.

    • I agree that it is unfair but the reason they do this is pretty clear. They want to increase the visibility of the league by having big American names coming back to the American league. They (possibly rightly) believe that paying huge amounts for high profile players will encourage more Americans to watch MLS on tv, go to games, buy merch, etc. The fairness thing really is a problem though especially considering that one of the big upsides MLS touts is its concern with parity and paying huge transfer fees for some teams flies in the face of that.

      • MLS has paid for other dps transfer fees Columbus (Federico Higuaín), Portland (Diego Valerie).
        I think with more anatomy Vancouver would have still lost Camilo that was more the club and Camilo and Mexican team Querétaro and less MLS doing.

  2. Be careful what you wish for, this organization’s budgetary restraints are pretty glaring now, could you imagine what would happen if Garber took the training wheels off? We’d be dreadfully bad….

  3. I think that single entity also protects them from antitrust litigation

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