Monday MLS Breakdown: Retention fund makes perfect sense, raises questions as league builds for the future

It isn't easy for clubs to retain star players within the restrictive salary budget structure, but the Board of Governors made it just a little bit easier.
Every team in the league can now tap into a certain amount of money – $225,000 total over the next three years, according to ESPN's Alexi Lalas – to sign three key figures to new deals without placing them into the Designated Player category.

The new initiative fits within the compensation structure outlined by MLS over the past few years and offers a genuine opportunity to keep exactly the sort of players the league cannot afford to lose.

As MLS has shown, it is willing to spend money on the right players under the right set of circumstances. The league – as evidenced by its well-established contractual practices – harbors little interest in providing substantive pay raises to the middle class and spreading the wealth. Those sorts of expenditures increase the bottom line without creating the corresponding uptick in performances on the field. It is one of the many reasons why the salary budget system exists in the first place.

The considerations change when certain types of players – the sort of fellows necessary to increase the standard of the league, particularly in the attacking third – require more compensation to sign with or stay with their clubs. In those instances, MLS possesses the flexibility and the pliability within its single-entity structure to devise reasonable ways to acquire and keep players in that category.

Consider this so-called retention fund as a natural offshoot of the Designated Player rule and the recent uptick in both external investment (Providence Equity Partners purchased 25 percent of Soccer United Marketing last year) and internal interest in spending some of that capital (the arrival of several investor/operators willing to splash the cash on players, relatively speaking, over the past few years).

At this stage of its development, MLS must do all it can to extend its relationships with its best players. The early returns suggest a positive impact from the outset. Lalas revealed D.C. United (Chris Pontius), Los Angeles (Juninho), New York (Dax McCarty) and Sporting Kansas City (Matt Besler and Graham Zusi) have all used this new mechanism in its infancy. Other teams will certainly hop on board when the opportunity to spend free money – or, at the very least, money not attributable to the salary budget in any way – arises over the next two-and-a-half years.

It is, on the whole, a rather straightforward victory for MLS, its clubs and the rather select group of players (no more than 57) poised to benefit. As usual, it does come with a caveat best explained by a snippet of this exchange between Lalas and Taylor Twellman on ESPN's BootRoom Extra:

“What this brings up is why didn't we know about this,” Lalas said. “This is a wonderful thing. This is additional money actually on the salary cap that can be used to sign valuable MLS players.”

“But Alexi, we're seeing rules being introduced July 7th and they were already used,” Twellman interjected. “Fans deserve better. I'm sorry, they deserve better.”

Both points are valid on their face: it is a wonderful, murky mechanism that falls in line with how MLS usually addresses peculiar personnel situations. As Lalas correctly continues, transparency does not benefit the league in these sorts of matters. Nor does the league have an established track record of openness in these matters, though it has expressed some willingness to do so in the past.

There will come a time when internal and external market pressures force the league to operate in an overt manner befitting its stature. Until that juncture arrives, the ends will always justify the means, even if those means infuriate keen observers of the league. And the ends here – persuading influential players to remain in the folds – more than justify any modest liberties taken.

Five Points – Week 19

1. Is Diego Forlán really headed to Toronto?: The prospect looks increasingly likely, according to several reports out of Ontario on Sunday night. If the once-prolific 34-year-old Uruguayan star moves to MLS, it would mark a significant fillip for the league and for TFC. But this is exactly the sort of complex deal that requires an extra dollop of caution and a firm signature on the dotted line before any celebrations take place.

2. Besler, Zusi headline MLS Fan XI: Both U.S. internationals – and Sporting Kansas City teammate Aurelien Collin – feature prominently in a group of 10 players selected by the fans for the All-Star Game at Sporting Park on July 31. None of the selections stood out as particularly egregious using the always pliable scale used to measure these sorts of matters.

Two other points worth noting here on this topic: (1) one more player will be added through a contest where fans attempt to score the most goals with their favorite player while playing FIFA 13 in order to seal his place in the Fan XI (not a joke) and (2) 32 players will end up with the All-Star designation (and the corresponding bonuses, if their contracts include them) by the end of the process, in accordance with the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

3. Vancouver finally wins a Cascadia Cup match in MLS: It took the Whitecaps 13 tries, but they finally recorded their first league victory over Portland or Seattle. Kenny Miller scored early, Darren Mattocks scored late and Brad Knighton protected the lead in the middle to hand Martin Rennie's side a precious 2-0 triumph. Perhaps B.C. Place – and British Columbia on the whole – isn't a second home for Sounders FC after all.

4. Early dismissal hastens the end of Portland's 15-game unbeaten run: The extended stretch of results ended when Pa-Modou Kah procured a red card for denying a goalscoring opportunity after just 12 minutes. Not even the in-form Timbers could muster a reply to Bernardo Anor's fifth-minute opener and sidestep a first defeat since March 9.

5. Mike Magee shares his disgust: “We started the game like [expletive] and we somehow managed to finish it off even worse,” Magee told after the Fire conceded twice in the first eight minutes en route to a 2-1 home defeat to Sporting Kansas City on Sunday. “I think we thought the game was tied or we were winning and we were just going to sit back and we were content. Unfortunately, we were down 2-1, so it wasn't a very good game plan.”