MLS player acquisition rules have improved but still need tweaking

A new CBA helped MLS usher in much-needed changes to player acquisition rules, but it appears those regulations still need tweaking, writes Ives Galarcep.

Bruce Arena had to know he would probably face some backlash, and potentially a fine, when he used the term "blackmail" to describe one process MLS teams use to pick up new players. But he wasn't about to take back the comments he made to the LA Galaxy website Tuesday.

When contacted by Goal USA about his unhappiness with the process his team went through to sign Sebastian Lletget — a process that included having to pay $50,000 in allocation money to the New England Revolution — the Galaxy coach made it clear he wasn't blaming MLS officials for imperfections in the system, but rather the new and still-flawed process the league's teams agreed to implement.

“This particular rule, I think over time we’ll examine it and we’ll change it a little bit," Arena told Goal USA. "Maybe really require that if you discover a player you have to sign him."

Arena and the Galaxy first began discussions with Lletget in January, and brought the U.S. youth international into the Galaxy's preseason training camp in Ireland and Denmark for a closer look that only strengthened Arena's interest in the playmaker.

Standing in the way of a move for Lletget was the fact that MLS was in a state of transition between the league's old player acquisition roles and the new ones implemented along with the new collective bargaining agreement. The Galaxy thought they had a deal for Lletget done March 1, but MLS pushed back a decision on how to handle Lletget's signing on multiple occasions before eventually reaching out to the rest of the league to see if there was interest from any other teams.

If there had been no interest shown in Lletget, the Galaxy would have been free to sign him. But multiple teams inquired once it became clear he was an option.

Sources tell Goal USA that New England initially wasn't one of those teams, and the Revolution never contacted Lletget or his representatives before putting in a discovery claim on the first day MLS accepted new claims for 2015. The Revs and Galaxy both filed claims on the same day, but New England received the first crack at Lletget because the club finished below LA in the 2014 season.

By all accounts, the Revs never intended to sign Lletget. But they did want the $50,000 in allocation they were due to receive in order to step aside and let the Galaxy sign him. It was this action that Arena was referring to as blackmail. Extortion would have been a better word, though still not quite as accurate as the term "shakedown."

"The new system is a faster one, but it’s, for a lack of a better word, a little bit of blackmail," Arena told Goal USA.

"No one’s a bad guy in this. It’s just that we devised a rule that allows some gamesmanship and we’re saying you have to pay up if you want a player and you’re behind in the pecking order," Arena said. "For me, I view it as if you’re going to discover a player, it’s with the intent to sign him."

The Seattle Sounders would probably agree with Arena, especially after the Galaxy and Sounders became entangled in a discovery claim tug-of-war last summer that saw LA cast as the opportunistic team standing between a club and its discovery target.

The Sounders had their sights set on goalkeeper Timo Hildenbrand, who had trained with the Sounders and was offered a contract. According to multiple sources, the Galaxy put in a discovery claim for Hildebrand after the goalkeeper had practiced with Seattle, getting wind of the training stint and moving to get in the way of Seattle's signing. Hildenbrand asked Seattle not to put in a discovery claim on him before the two sides agreed to a contract, which gave the Galaxy enough time to step in and submit their claim.

When asked about the Hildenbrand case, Arena denied that the Galaxy put in the claim to squeeze a fee out of Seattle. According to one Sounders source, the Galaxy never set a price for getting out of Seattle's way, but by staying in the way they forced Seattle to give up its move for Hildenbrand.

"Hildenbrand was on our discovery list and they brought him on trial and offered him a contract," Arena said. "We said he’s on our discovery list. Technically you can’t do that.

"In some ways you could hold on to that discovery for the year," Arena added. "Now, there’s no question that it’s a speedier process. That part is better. The only issue is to get the rights to sign a player, if someone else puts a claim in then you pay for it."

The Sounders never had a chance to even make an offer for Hildenbrand, a player coach Sigi Schmid had known for decades. The Galaxy stayed in the way, keeping the Sounders from signing him.

According to MLS sources, the new discovery rule guidelines — which went into effect a week ago — prevent that sort of stonewalling by establishing $50,000 as the set price a team could pay to a club with a claim on the same player. In theory, the $50,000 payoff shouldn't happen often since a team secures the discovery rights on any player it claims, so long as the claim is first and no other claims were submitted the same day.

When can it happen? When one team gets wind of another team's interest in a player and slips in a claim before or at the same time as the interested team. Sources tell Goal USA the same two teams involved in the Lletget discovery battle could be headed for another tussle for a young American player. According to multiple sources, the Revolution have put in a claim on another unidentified player the Galaxy also claimed — and much like Lletget, the Revs have made no moves to sign the player.

Perhaps it was knowing that he might have to send the Revs another $50,000 for a player New England has no intention of signing that frustrated Arena to the point of taking a shot at the very system he helped implement, and one he has also taken advantage of at times.

"The league is all of us — this is not somebody in the league office devising devious rules. These rules come up and everybody finds a way to take advantage of them," Arena said. "It’s like anything else. Rules are rules. I guess if you take the air out of a football, that’s a rule being broken and you can make more out of it than it is."

So no, there isn't literal blackmail going on in MLS player transactions. But even after some very clear improvements in the league's rules, there remain loopholes for teams to try to exploit, for others like Arena to criticize, and for MLS to hopefully close in the near future.