Seattle had already spent all the new allocations of money announced last week by the MLS
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey has a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and a law degree from Georgetown. He’s worked for a powerful Washington, D.C. law firm and used to pen guest columns for Sports Illustrated.
So if anybody can break down Major League Soccer’s myriad Rules and Regulations into chewable bits accessible to the casual fan — including the announcement last week of another wave of “Targeted Allocation Money” — it’s Lagerwey, right?
“Yes, it can be confusing,” Lagerwey said. “Yes, it can give the impression of not being transparent. But, although the money isn’t (interchangeable) and has to stay in one particular bucket, if you think of the salary cap as just one mechanism … ”
He catches himself.
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“It’s unfortunately complex and a little bit difficult to clarify.”
For starters, think of MLS as a hybrid between the NBA and Major League Baseball.
Where the NBA has expiring contacts and other creative accounting terms to tiptoe around and wiggle beneath the salary cap, MLS has Allocation Money to help buy down cap hits against the threshold. There are certain exemptions for Homegrown Players — local players from their own developmental academies — and Generation Adidas guys — prospects who have been enticed into early entry into the league.
Lagerwey used the analogy of different buckets, each of which fill up a different part of the squad. There’s the salary cap, right around $3.5 million in 2015, and the aforementioned exemptions on top of that. Allocation Money is another bucket, tossed in to raise the overall water level.
That’s where the comparison to MLB, its natural hierarchy and its 40-man roster, comes into play. Within most MLS clubs these days, there are the 18 to 20 on the senior roster who make up the match-day rotation, 10 or so developmental players and around a dozen prospects playing on the club-affiliated minor-league squads.
“If you do the math, it’s a 40-man roster,” Lagerwey said. “It’s exactly the same concept. When you look at the cap, the number of players you’ve signed is not important. The number of players on your senior roster is what’s important.”
Why the league doesn’t just raise the salary cap is a good question, and the use of “targeted” is telling. MLS encourages teams to spend on a specific type of player, Nos. 4 through 11 on the roster — the line just below the Designated Player stars but above the rotation-filling vets.
Wednesday, the league announced an injection of $37 million into the marketplace over the next two seasons. That includes $32 million in Target Allocation Money and an extra $5 million in Homegrown Player funds.
But for fans expecting a few more big-name signings with the new funds, a word of caution — the Sounders already spent most of it during their spending spree last summer. Their hand forced by a prolonged losing streak, the Sounders bought down Osvaldo Alonso’s contract to sign Nelson Valdez and added legitimate pieces in Roman Torres, Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz.
It wouldn’t have made sense for the league to encourage teams to sign players to contracts with a pool of money set to dry up after only six months. So Lagerwey and the Sounders front office took an educated guess.
“We went out and we tried to win,” Lagerwey said. “If that meant we had to blow it up at the end of the year, that was a risk we were willing to take.”
Most MLS insiders saw the coming of the announcement Wednesday. The Sounders were banking on it.
“All that (Targeted Allocation Money) money is already spent,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve spent all of last year’s money ($500,000), and now with a full year of Roman Torres’ salary plus Ozzie, that $800,000 is already spent. On top of that, you have dramatically increased salary-cap hits for Valdez, Friberg and Ivanschitz. Valdez actually is double, because we only had him for half a season. The other two makes jumps as well.”
So, in essence, the trade of Lamar Neagle to D.C. United for allocation money and the reported Marco Pappa-to-Colorado deal were less about freeing up space for additional signings than simply getting the team back below a workable threshold.
“One of the narratives that’s been out there is that if we’re letting go all these guys, we must have tons of space,” Lagerwey said. “They’re going to sign seven starters and going to be great. The reality is that because of the summer … we did have to move some guys out to get to a break-even point where we could keep our current team.”
As for the Homegrown Player funds, the Sounders are putting all of their eggs in the Jordan Morris basket. They hope the Mercer Island product, Stanford junior and U.S. men’s national-team prospect finally goes pro after two-plus years of rebuffing their advances.
“That money is already committed to Jordan Morris,” Lagerwey said. “He may take or not take it. But that money is also spoken for. It’s only a surplus you can use on a Homegrown. There’s no other Homegrown.”
For all the talk of fresh injections of funds and targeting impact players, the Sounders’ starting lineup is likely to look very similar to the one that took the field in the Western Conference semifinals against Dallas.
For all the mechanisms and the Rules and Regulations and ever-shifting semantics, building an MLS contender requires the same skill set it always has: Learn the rule book from cover to cover, anticipate trends and occasionally take an educated risk.
Such as blowing through an entire pot of hypothetical money nobody is 100 percent sure is even going to materialize out of thin air during the first week of the offseason.
No one said understanding this league was easy.