Benny Feilhaber - may not be actual moment when he decided to return to the MLS.
As Fire fans, we are all obviously disappointed with yesterday's 2-1 loss to a severely reduced LA Galaxy side. However, I wanted to touch on a different subject full of problems: the MLS Allocation List. USMNT midfielder Benny Feilhaber has just signed a deal to return to the US from Danish second division club AGF Aarhus. It's always great to see an American come back home, especially those players that play for the USMNT. Benny was originally born in Brazil, but moved to the US at the age of 6, so he has lived in the US for a major portion of his life.
We all got to see what Benny could do last summer in the World Cup. Though he was used mainly off the bench, he came in and provided much needed energy and play making ability to a US team that gave us some very memorable World Cup moments. Who wouldn't want a player of this caliber on their MLS team? While there are many good teams in the league, I don't think there is a single team that would not benefit or have a spot open for Feilhaber. This is where the problem comes into play. Unless you are on the top of the Allocation List or are willing to trade some players or picks, most teams don't have a shot at getting Benny, no matter how badly they may need him. Follow me after the break for some food for thought...
We have mentioned many times in the past here on HTIOT that although MLS is definitely going in the right direction, they still have some lingering issues and things that do that set us apart from other professional leagues in the world. While unique aspects of any league are admirable because it sets that league apart from any other, if the US wishes to have the MLS looked at as a serious league with serious talent, they need to grow and mature as time goes on. For example, we have mentioned things like the schedule itself being far different from most serious leagues around the world. We have conferences. Most other leagues use a single table format. (i.e. EPL, La Liga, etc). We play our season in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. Most other leagues start in the Fall and end in the Spring. MLS uses a playoff system, which Americans have come to know and love because of the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB leagues which are not present in other countries. Most other leagues have no playoffs. MLS does things like announce the announcement of a venue for the All Star game a "major announcement" and release the schedule a month a half before the season. Most other leagues, well, they don't. Things like this hold back the MLS from being looked at with full appreciation by other countries.
I will say that I don't mind some of the things above, and some of them are necessary and unique to the MLS that won't and can't change. Since it would very hard to hold soccer matches at Toyota Park in the middle of winter, the schedule is one thing that should and will stay the same. The Spring to Fall schedule could even be a positive if MLS could get interest in the league started around the world. While the non-United States leagues aren't playing, some soccer fans in other countries could tune in to more MLS games. This makes presentation of the league, teams, fans, and policies of the utmost importance to portray a professional product that people can get interested in.
The playoff vs. non playoff vs. conferences vs. single table is something that will vary from person to person. Again, most of these things I don't have a huge problem with, but they are things that may drive fans in other countries away from the league because they are too different than what they have grown up with. I do believe the MLS should obviously be marketing to the US first, and our fanbase, before anything else. We are what make the league go and grow. However, to become a truly elite league, we do need to foster to fans in other places as well. Yes, I know we are only 15 years old as a league so we can't expect to be the EPL. We are so used to a playoff system with conferences in this country, along with the fact that relegation and promotion at this time is not an option and probably never will be, that we just have to except these things will always be part of the MLS product and what makes it so unique from other leagues.
Then we have the Allocation List which makes sense to no one regardless if you grew up in New Hampshire or Old Hampshire. Basically, when a player becomes available to the MLS that is not a draft signing or attached to another team for some reason (loan, etc), MLS has decided there should be an allocation of that player. So, if you are a team at the top of the list, you have a few different options. You can pass on that player and wait until someone comes along that you feel can truly help your team get better. Or, you can pick up the player, pay the salary from your budget and incorporate him into your team. This also drops you to the bottom of the list. Another option would be to pick up the player and then trade him, whether it be for current players, future draft picks, or a mixture of both. This would obviously be a good plan if a team knows that a player is needed/wanted by another team, but they don't necessarily need that player themselves. They can then flip the pick, get some good players or prospects, not be on the hook for the transfer fee or salary of the incoming player, all for being at the top of a list.
This is not EVEN THE WORST PART of the Allocation List: it only exists for players who have played on the United States Men's National Team. Take a look at this article on why D.C. United had first dibs on Charlie Davies when he came home to the league. Since D.C. was epically terrible last year, they were first in line. D.C. signed him but they could have traded him too. Imagine Clint Dempsey wanting to come back to the MLS right now. I am fairly sure every team would want a crack at him, but only the top 1 or 2 teams could even have the chance. These terrible teams can hold the pick hostage and get a gross overpayment for the pick. Normally you would tip your hat and give props to that team for being able to get an inflated price someone else was willing to pay. In the case of allocation, a team acquires the right to a big named star solely because they sucked last year. This is flat wrong in my opinion and it might even keep Dempsey from returning. USMNT stars undoubtedly think twice about returning to the league when they might end playing in some cow town like Columbus playing for a team in turmoil like the Crew.
The rule makes even less sense when you take into account the fact that an American born player can play in Europe, and as long as he doesn't pull on that US jersey at least once, then he can come back here and go to any team with no restrictions. Is the MLS trying to penalize US players for representing their country by basically tell them which teams they can go to and which they can't? Take Gabriel Ferrari, who we signed this year. He started with Sampdoria in Italy, followed by AC Bellinzona in Switzerland with some stops in between. Why was there no restrictions of which teams he could come back to? Oh that's right, he has not been capped by the US, so he is not punished for it.
Sticking with Fire examples, how about Brian McBride? The local, Arlington Heights native wanted to finish his career in MLS. He figured what better place to do this than for your hometown team? Problem is, MLS Allocation List had Toronto FC first and they wanted to claim Brian McBride or at least milk something out of the Fire for his rights. We gave up Chad Barrett and a first round pick just to lay out a contract in front of McBride. This picture is just wrong. The guy wanted to play for his home club. MLS told him that he had to go play for a team that wasn't good and one that he had no interest in playing for. Had the Fire not been willing to make the trade, it would have cause a lot of headaches for Brian and the league. It's almost as if the MLS doesn't want USMNT players to come back to the league when they force them to go to a certain team unless a trade happens to send the player where they truly want to go. Nery Castillo played for the Mexican National Team, yet he had no such restrictions for us to get him. Speaking of Toronto FC, the league has two Canadian teams now and will add a third next year when Montreal joins. Why doesn't the policy keep Canadian Men's National Team members from going through the allocation system too?. MLS needs to be fair both ways or better yet just scrap the Allocation List entirely.
In closing, the MLS should and likely will keep some of the unique things I pointed out above. However, it's just ridiculous to effectively punish teams and incoming USMNT players. This isn't just a suggestion to make the league look more professional, it's also that having a list like this in the first place is just plain dumb in my opinion. Even if the list only had the worst teams on it in an attempt to help them acquire more top level talent, it wouldn't really encourage those teams. Why field a mediocre team when you get handed a big free agent for fielding a bad team as more USMNT players return? I am sure there are some decent points to be made in favor of it, but at the end of the day, incoming, unattached USMNT players should be fair game to everyone. This allows even the smaller market teams to make a splash with a signing if they outbid everyone else instead of the same old LA and New York's of the world who can swoop in with a big trade offer. It's time to open the market for all players.