Major League Soccer is on the cusp of getting to that next level.
It just lured arguably the top American player on the planet (while already employing one of the other candidates) from the Premier League for a record financial package. League attendance is on the rise. Academies are churning out more MLS-ready talent. The 2013 playoff race figures to be as heated as ever with all but three teams legitimately still having something to play for aside from pride. Manchester City and the New York Yankees have bought in for the intriguing New York City FC project. Four more teams after NYCFC will join the fold. Teams are selling for record value.
But one of the most fundamental issues of running a league remains unsettled: The casual observer -- heck, even the most diehard of fans -- still does not have complete certainty on how all player signings and personnel moves are conducted, and it is as if the rules are still being made up as the league goes.
Clint Dempsey signing with the Seattle Sounders is an incredible development for the league. MLS commissioner Don Garber always harps on wanting to keep the top American talent stateside instead of venturing abroad -- while understanding the financial and competitive benefits of playing overseas -- to use as his greatest advertisement to young fans in this country. If a boy from Nacogdoches, Texas, for example, can make it big here, then so can you.
Dempsey, still very much in the prime years of his career, joins Landon Donovan as marquee American faces of the league. His return to MLS, it could be argued, is as necessary for exponential growth as David Beckham's arrival was. In its simplest terms: Dempsey being in the league, especially in a soccer-mad city like Seattle where tens of thousands of fans will cheer him on nightly, is good for everyone.
How he arrived, however, is another story altogether.
With Dempsey signing as a Designated Player, he became exempt from the MLS allocation order, which is otherwise reserved for returning MLS players who have left for a transfer fee or U.S. national team players joining the league. In Dempsey's case, he has both of the allocation order boxes checked off, but he bypassed it to go to the highest bidder as a DP signing. That reasoning would seem fair enough -- if it were listed anywhere in the MLS rulebook that is accessible to the media and the general public.
Instead, upon Dempsey's signing, MLS was forced to issue a statement regarding the USA captain's path to signing directly with Seattle, likening it to Claudio Reyna's arrival in New York in 2007. It had to do so in order to clarify any confusion and quiet some of the shouts asking for Portland, the only team higher than Seattle in the allocation order, to receive compensation. Cue the detractors and the rolled eyes.
"We have different mechanisms by which players can come into the league," Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer explained at Dempsey's introductory press conference on Monday. "Clint came in as a Designated Player. You can't come in through multiple mechanisms. We were able to work directly with [Dempsey's agent Lyle Yorks] and the league to put together a package that made sense.
"Let's be realistic. A player of Clint's quality and pedigree has a say in where he ends up. That's just the reality of certain players that end up in our league."
Maybe so, but it is rare to have a high-ranking official put things in as explicit terms as those. Sure, Beckham and Thierry Henry were able to hand pick their destinations, and the next international star to come aboard will likely do the same. The single-entity league is supposed to have mechanisms in place for competitive equality when it comes to the distribution of talent (or at the very least the paying of compensation), though.
Instead, the league's lack of transparency and murkiness regarding Dempsey's fast track to the Emerald City -- with MLS shelling out for his reported $9 million transfer fee, no less -- is just the latest example of a player signing that raises numerous questions.
Prior to the MLS All-Star Game, the league published a video on its official website in which MLS All-Stars were asked which fellow All-Star they would like to have on their club team. The scenario involved kicking someone off their current roster. The video was a light-hearted exercise with absolutely zero seriousness to it and was meant to entertain while drawing a few laughs. But it was also quite revealing.
Omar Gonzalez said he'd take college and U.S. national team teammate Graham Zusi. As for who he'd kick off the Galaxy to make way for the Sporting Kansas City maestro?
"Nobody. I'm sure the Galaxy can make up a rule and pull some allocation money somewhere. I think it'll be worked out," Gonzalez said with an ear-to-ear smile.
RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said he'd take Landon Donovan. And as for who he'd escort out of Rio Tinto Stadium?
"I wouldn't. We'd just expand rosters, that's what we do, make rules every day," the Gold Cup-winning shot-stopper said with a full-bellied laugh.
That MLS's unstable and mysterious rulebook is the butt of All-Star-caliber players' jokes is a joke unto itself. MLS has taken tremendous strides in its 17-plus years and will continue to do so, especially with Dempsey's watershed signing and all of the expansion on the horizon. It is also clear that there is work to be done to achieve complete integrity as MLS looks to loop in more fans who will want a simple explanation for how teams go about their business.
"We're in our adolescence as a league," Hanauer said. "I sit on the product strategy committee and the competition committee, and we talk about transparency, and we want to continue to have more and more transparency in the league. I think that's a good thing for fans. It is something that we're working towards."
The league needs to get there sooner rather than later. MLS is on the cusp, but getting rid of its arcane rule structure, or at least making more of an effort to be more transparent, is a must if the league ever truly wants to reach its tipping point.