The mysteries of MLS’s roster rules and regulations

Photo: Paul Rudderow

On roster compliance day, the new document MLS 2023 Roster Rules and Regulations could be found only by actively searching that title on the league’s website.

The Philadelphia Union’s active roster totals 30 players or fewer, as should the league’s teams. At this writing the Union’s total is the promised 27, the largest ever under Ernst Tanner.

But, after reviewing teams’ players’ ages, minutes played in MLS NEXT Pro, academy statuses, and similar player development questions, the numbers the rules envision within its roster categories are not followed with exact congruency — by the Union and several other teams.

Deciphering the discussion below requires following the detailed differences among these roster category labels:

·      supplemental senior roster slots 21 through 24 HG & not $ 85,444
·      supplemental reserve roster slots 25 through 28 HG & not $ 67,360
·      supplemental reserve roster slots 29 through 30 HG only $ 67,360
·      supplemental reserve roster slot 31 HG only $ 67,360

As is no surprise to anyone with four fingers, the rules assert that four reserve roster slots exist among supplemental reserve roster slots 25 through 28. But the current Union’s roster overtly lists five not four: Jack McGlynn, Brandan Craig, Nathan Harriel, Jeremy Rafanello, and Holden Trent.

Covertly, it lists a sixth.

Chris Donovan has been categorized for the last nine months as “Drafted” even though he was signed to an MLS professional contract off waivers last June 18. (Before that he had been signed to a Philadelphia Union II one. And he had not been drafted by the Union but by Columbus, hence the $ 50K GAM to Chicago for the first spot on the waivers list.)

The salary reported for him by the MLSPA places him squarely within the parameters of supplemental reserve roster slots 25 through 28. By rule he is excluded from both the senior roster itself and the supplemental senior roster because he makes too little money. And he is not a homegrown player, so he is excluded from supplemental slots 29 and 30, and supplemental slot 31 if it in fact sill exists.  Slots 25 to 28 are the only places he can fit.

Six does not equal four.

A caveat needs asserting. Experience suggests the document MLS’s 2023 Rules and Regulations is not the actual rules. It does not read like the official rulebooks I used to consult almost forty years ago when a head baseball coach at a small local private school. They are not pseudo-legalese attempts to cover all possible loopholes, extraordinary circumstances, and arcane attempts at circumvention. They read like everyday language summaries written for the press and the public, and as such must be considered potentially incomplete.

The most recently noticed Union roster anomaly may reflect the incompleteness, the difference between a summary for civilians and the rules themselves. Nelson Pierre, the most recent homegrown signing, is classified as supplemental reserve roster slot 31 and listed as “loaned out.” But the published document does not mention any supplemental reserve roster slot 31.

Some years ago, Jonathan Tannenwald of The Inquirer explained that a combination of parameters allowed the signing of someone as a supplemental reserve roster slot 31 player. The then-current edition of the rules summary supported Tannenwld’s explanation. But after the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, that language disappeared. Perhaps the provisions survived in the actual rules themselves.

Greater transparency in the roster listings might mitigate the public’s enduring tendency to perceive MLS’s rules as made to be broken, that the wealthiest — or the smartest — can always get around them.

Here is an example where transparency would help.

Within the last month a Union homegrown player who earlier had been listed as occupying one of the supplemental senior roster slots 21 through 24, Anton Sorenson, was reclassified. At first glance his reclassification seemed to contradict the rules directly.

As a supplemental senior roster player, he had to receive at least the senior roster minimum salary, which for both 2022 and 2023 is $85,444 when annualized. The latest player association salary guide confirmed that was his salary for 2022.

But the 2023 Roster Rules and Regulations says a player in supplemental reserve slots 29 and 30 “must be filled with Homegrown Players (i) earning the Reserve Minimum Salary ($67,360).” And $85,444 does not equal $67,360.

But after double-checking my citation is incomplete. The full statement is “Slots 29 and 30 must be filled with Homegrown Players (i) earning the Reserve Minimum Salary ($67,360) or (ii) earning more than the Reserve Minimum Salary subject to the Homegrown Player Subsidy.”

Because Sorenson meets the homegrown subsidy requirement of being in his first MLS contract, the Union must have used $18,804 of “currently available Targeted Allocation Money” (see the Homegrown Player Subsidy segment within the linked document) to reclassify him from supplemental slots 21 through 24 to supplemental slots 29 and 30.

Were the Union and MLS to indicate which homegrown players were classified in their roster category using the homegrown player subsidy rule, a potential perception that MLS does not follow its own rules would be eliminated. Since his recently announced new contract, Jack McGlynn might be so indicated.

Such transparencies might develop future perceptions of integrity.


  1. Semi-related, I read about SKC signing Danny Flores (formerly of U2 and the Union Academy) off waivers, and could not piece together how he got there and why it means no compensation for the Union… any ideas?

    • Gruncle Bob says:

      Per transfermarkt, it looks like he left the academy in 4/21 and went to Oakland (USL Champ) for a season – then to VA Tech for 2 seasons – then to KC.

      • That all makes sense, but I was confused how that means he’s on waivers rather than a free agent.

      • Gruncle Bob says:

        This is a textbook example of how the available MLS rules just don’t make sense. If you look under “Claiming an Out of Contract Player” and then “Players eligible to be placed on waivers” and then “Remaining College Eligibility” there’s this:
        Remaining College Eligibility: A player who left or forgoes college with remaining eligibility (and was not on the MLS SuperDraft list). Such players will be discoverable one year after leaving or forgoing college with remaining eligibility (subject to being placed on the Allocation Ranking List).
        That doesn’t make a lot sense to me, but as far as I can tell they use the waiver mechanism to give the teams with worse records a “first shot” at these players.

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    On one hand, I loved Tanner calling out LAFC’s book-cooking last year – anonymous quotes are for cowards and he went public with it. On the other, the way these rules are written seems to beg for shenanigans

  3. Gruncle Bob says:

    Thanks for writing on this topic. A familiarity with the roster rules helps a person understand why MLS teams do what they do (most of the time.)
    At the bottom of the MLS site, the “Roster Rules and Regulations” will get you to the 2022 rules. It’s possible that the “webmaster” hasn’t updated that link yet.
    I agree that the published rules read more like a translation of technical specs. It makes me wonder what the actuals look like.
    Teams are very close-lipped about their usage of GAM/TAM, probably viewing it as a potential competitive advantage. That may be a reason for some of the roster strangeness that appears from time to time. Hopefully, each team is roster compliant in the eyes of the league, but doesn’t want to let on to the other teams just how they got there.

    • Tim Jones says:

      I’m being picayune, Gruncle Bob.
      I did find the 2023 version, by copying the 2022 title and then substituting a 3 for the last 2 before I searched the website.
      I think I found the current version.
      As further evidence, the number given in my cite for the reserve roster minimum salary is not 2022’s number. That one rose, unlike the senior roster minimum.

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