TUKWILA — When Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer wants a player, it can require a forward’s goal-scoring creativity when it comes to MLS roster-building.
The Sounders signed Argentine midfielder Emanuel Cecchini before the FIFA transfer window closed earlier this month. At the start of each season, MLS teams are permitted eight international spots on a 30-player roster, and Cecchini was the ninth when he signed.
Cecchini, who’s on loan from the Spanish second-division team Malaga CF, appeared in 13 minutes and had one goal attempt. How was he able to play? Following money and roster spots in MLS’ rule book reveals a bunch of rules to skirt rules within rules.
Roster-wise, one thought was to move a current Sounders international player down to the Tacoma Defiance and slot Cecchini in with the first team. A better solution was to utilize the rule permitting teams to buy and sell unused international roster spots like sneakers.
And like websites selling collectible kicks, everyone knows how many are available — in 2019, a total of 192 international roster slots are divided among the 24 teams — and Seattle needed to work a deal without appearing too desperate.
Garth Lagerwey, Sounders general manager and president of soccer, could’ve waited until the MLS trade deadline closed Aug. 30 to possibly get a lower price. Of the seven MLS international roster spots still available leaguewide, the Vancouver Whitecaps offered a reasonable deal, Lagerwey said.
Cue the meme with algebra, calculus and geometry figures across my face when it comes to how Cecchini is paid.
Los Angeles Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the highest paid MLS player this season at $7.2 million, according to the player salary guide released by the Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA). The 2019 MLS salary cap is $4.240 million.
You can put “cap” in quotations because teams can buy down salaries with a pool of funds provided by the league called Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) or General Allocation Money (GAM). The latter is money provided by the league for not qualifying for the playoffs or player transfers outside of MLS or qualifying for CONCACAF Champions League. (The Sounders received $100,000 of such money Tuesday from Nashville SC for the rights to German midfielder Hany Mukhtar.)
There’s also Discretionary Targeted Allocation Money, where teams can spend from their own pockets to boost their payroll. And Designated Players (DP), such as Ibrahimovic, don’t even really count toward the cap.
Dubbed the “Beckham Rule” because of the Galaxy throwing stacks of money at David Beckham in 2007, signing the Englishman to a reported five-year contract worth $6.5 million annually, no more than $500,000 counts toward an MLS team’s salary — less depending on age — and there can only be three DPs per roster.
Hold on, though. You can switch a player’s salary designation within a season to remain within the “cap.”
Lagerwey and his staff worked with MLS front office staff in May to pull this trick and sign Ecuadorian defender Xavier Arreaga — moving Victor Rodriguez to Team Allocation Money and Arreaga as the new Designated Player, earning about $501,000 this season.
Seattle’s other Designated Players are striker Raul Ruidiaz ($1.8 million) and center midfielder Nico Lodeiro ($2.5 million). Cecchini is under a Team Allocation Money contract, or basically paid by MLS to play for Seattle.
Confusing, yes. But it’s hard to imagine how the league would’ve gained legitimacy within two decades in an age-old sport without obvious control on how it would retain parity and grow financially.
U.S. Soccer is the other controlling hand, utilizing the league and the team’s academies to develop talent for the national team. It set the limit of 192 international MLS players to insure teams stock rosters with U.S. talent that in turn would gain the necessary playing time to be prepared for international competitions.
Most sports leagues across genders around the world have rules regarding international players. Makes sense. One of the easiest lures to buying a ticket is watching a hometown athlete shine.
MLS remains on the low end in overall payroll spending among U.S. men’s sports. However, it’s topped the others in cultivating parity. Not sure if the high-tech accounting and roster categories can take credit, but it’s what most fans want at this point in the season.
Seattle (12-8-7) has seven matches remaining, and only Los Angeles FC has clinched one of the seven Western Conference playoff slots. LAFC (19-3-5) and its whopping 62 points is in line for the MLS Supporters’ Shield for best overall record. The remaining six possible playoff teams are separated by three points — one win.
Lagerwey’s hope is when all roster moves are solidified Aug. 30, his 21 moves, when including signings and contract extensions, add up to a playoff berth and MLS Cup. There’s just no resting until November for the outcome.
“It all starts back up again Sept. 1,” he said of forming Schmetzer’s 2020 roster.
Calling all Sounders
Multiple call-ups were announced Wednesday for FIFA’s international break in September. The U.S. men’s national team selected Sounders forward Jordan Morris and Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan for its roster to compete in friendlies against Mexico (Sept. 6) and Uruguay (Sept. 10).
Ruidiaz was called up by his Peruvian national team for friendlies against Ecuador (Sept. 5) and Brazil (Sept. 10). Arreaga was called up by his national team earlier this month and could face his Sounders teammate on Sept. 5.
More call-ups involving Sounders players are expected within the week.
The international break runs Sept. 2-10, so the first-choice Sounders players will be available for selection for Sunday’s match against the Los Angeles Galaxy at CenturyLink Field. But the call-ups will likely deplete the Sounders selection pool for its Sept. 7 road game at the Colorado Rapids.
Seattle typically doesn’t play games during FIFA breaks but MLS had to reschedule the match from April 10 due to a snowstorm in the Denver area.
A championship first
MLS Cup will make its national network debut in November. ABC will broadcast the championship game for the first time in league history, MLS announced Wednesday.
The match is slated for Nov. 10 at noon Pacific and will also air on Univision Network, TSN and TVA Sports in Canada.
A single-elimination game format is also a playoff first, with the No. 1 seeds in the Western and Eastern conferences receiving first-round byes and top seeds earning home-field advantages. If the playoffs were to begin Thursday, the third-place Sounders would host a postseason opener in October.