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MLS Offseason Crash Course 6: International Spots

Give the people what they want

Atlanta United FC v Minnesota United FC Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Atlanta United Headquarters. Marietta, Georgia.

The LAFC Technical Staff has been meeting with as many clubs as possible to get caught up to speed on the crazy MLS roster rules and hopefully learn some best practices along the way.

In the center of an elegantly furnished board room. Paul McDonough stands over John Thorrington (Executive VP of Soccer Operations for LAFC) who sits cross-legged on top of the board room table with his eyes closed. He’s straining. The rest of the LAFC Technical Staff look on from the perimeter of the room. Bob Bradley checks his Blackberry, scowls.

McDonough: Breathe. Just breathe. Now, reach out... What do you see?

Thorrington: Soccer players. Americans. Canadians. Players from other nations.

McDonough: What else?

Thorrington: Senior Roster spots. International Player Spots. Allocation money.

McDonough: “And between all of them?”

Thorrington: “...Balance.”


This is not going to go the way you think

I’ve held off long enough. But it seems that no matter what I post about, or tweet about, or read about, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to international player spots: how many do Atlanta have? How many might they need? How will they get them? Will they trade for them? Why are they trading them away? Can players get green cards to become domestic players? All of these types of things.

So we’re tabling the GAM vs TAM post that was scheduled, and we’re skipping to this one for now. And to be fair, the influx of new discretionary TAM in 2018 has probably made this worth talking about finally. But first, I’ll just say it: I think the most important takeaway is simply not to worry about the international spots.

It scared me then. It doesn’t scare me enough now.

Young Tiotal Football (circa 2016/2017 offseason) was very concerned about the international spots. He kept adding them all up in his head and it made no sense. At the time and as the Front Office was putting the final touches on the inaugural squad, there was no way of Young Tiotal Football knowing that they were building a team that would qualify for the playoffs in its first season and come within inches of a first round bye in a very difficult Eastern Conference. He was certain they had backed themselves into a corner and were going to get trapped and held ransom by some team with an extra international spot. It didn’t happen. McCann and Kenwyne got green cards. Romario and Otoo were loaned to Charleston, and with Kratz later getting a green card midseason, the club ended up trading an Intl Spot for like.. a few months for TAM. So Youngish Tiotal Football told himself, never worry about international spots ever again.

There has been an awakening

Then why are we talking about it? Well the thing is, if you believe any of the other Crash Course posts where the central philosophy is to acquire squad-strengthening-assets by trading away players within MLS (where the supply of existing players is constricted) and replacing them with players from outside MLS where the supply is essentially limitless as a way of maximizing your team’s strength and depth while also limiting the funds your opponents have to spend on their own squads....(breathes), then it would make sense that international spots are important. Right?

Further, if there is about to be an additional $2.8M per team per year of discretionary TAM to be spent on players who make more than $500K, and if there is a limited supply of existing MLS players who make more than $500K, but a much larger supply of international candidates that would perform well in MLS and who could be signed for salaries exceeding $500K and therefore qualify as TAM players, (breathes) ... then one wonders (and ones have definitely wondered this in my inbox: TiotalFootball @ gmail), are international spots suddenly more valuable than they used to be? That is to say, if the key to optimally utilizing the new TAM funds is to sign international players, then don’t we have increased demand for International Spots and a static supply of them (8 per team though tradeable)? And isn’t the way that markets clear when demand rises and supply is constrained, that the price of the asset goes up?

Yes. But...idk... stay with me.

Distress Signal

I asked the Atlanta United twittersphere to send me names of foreign players who’d been in the league a couple years. I was just looking for an unbiased sample - like the first player that comes to mind if you think of a foreigner playing in MLS. Thank you to everyone who responded. I think this is a pretty good sample. And what I did with the list was I looked up whether each of these foreign players was an International Player or a Domestic Player according to MLSSoccer.com’s roster pages. Here are the results:

Raise your hand if you expected to see nearly two thirds of them be non-international spot players. For good measure, here are a few other “foreign” players I picked out who do not require international slots.

As you can see, most of the well-known foreign players who have been in the league a couple years do not take up international spots in MLS. They’ve all applied for and received Green Cards from the US government. Canadian teams are weird and have different rules, but whatever. At any rate, I think this is the key finding that we need to remember when we start getting worried about international spots.

You’ll turn. I’ll help you.

A week after the New York Times sparked some conversation after releasing this piece that showed that only 51% of MLS players are American, it can be easy to do some mental math and think ... “wait, 8 international slots per team, that’s 40% of the senior roster, but supposedly the league is 50% international, GET ME ALL THE INTERNATIONAL SPOTS NOW.” But the truth of the matter is that it’s not difficult to turn international players into non-international players. All it takes is some time to get a green card.

I’m not a lawyer or an immigration expert so I won’t be touching on the green card process and requirements, but it certainly appears likely that the longer an international player from the inaugural season remains on Atlanta United’s roster, the less likely he is to count as an international player. We should expect to see 2-3 players from last year’s campaign getting their green cards before the season begins (maybe more). This explains why the team is dealing international spots to LAFC and Portland and not trading for them like they did last year — even in the face of new TAM money. It also explains why a team like LAFC would want international spots in its first season: there is often not enough time to complete the green card process for a first year team. The fact that Atlanta United were able to achieve this for 3 players in their inaugural campaign is impressive. Most impressive.

Balance

So, back to the overall macro question: “are international spots significantly more valuable, now that there is additional TAM in the economy?” The way I think about it is that the demand for international player spots is mostly for players transferring into MLS for the first time (or for their first couple of years). So an MLS team would need to find international spots to place their 2-3 new international players (an estimate) each year. And it’s very possible they either have the 2-3 international spots lying around, or they free 2-3 of them up each year with green cards. So this is just me guessing, but I almost feel like the supply and demand equilibrium of international spots exists mostly separate from the supply of allocation money into the system. The allocation money just directs to which types of players additional wages are paid (more expensive ones). And I guess if teams were consistently not using their international spots, the new TAM would provide a pretty decent “floor” for the value of IS in the sense that any team not utilizing (or monetizing by trading away) their international spots would be at a disadvantage - less likely to sign the types of players the new money is for.

Appendices:

Pricing:

In general when teams trade for international spots with pure allocation money, they historically go in the 50K to 75K range, though it makes sense that with more allocation money flowing in, we might see some subtle inflation here. Maybe it starts to be something more like $100K in a year’s time? Which is probably immaterial in the scheme of things. This is in contrast to my initial reaction when the TAM news dropped where I was thinking maybe these are all significantly more valuable now.

And, for those who care, the actual roster rules:

[copied from mlssoccer.com]

Domestic/International

In 2017, a total of 176 international roster spots are divided among the 22 clubs. In 2008, each MLS Club was given the right to have eight international players on their roster and expansion Clubs were given the right to have eight international spots for their inaugural season. These spots are tradable, in full season increments, such that some clubs may have more than eight and some clubs may have fewer than eight. There is no limit on the number of international roster spots on each club's roster.

Domestic Players

  • U.S.-based Clubs: For U.S. Clubs, a domestic player is either a U.S. Citizen, a permanent resident (Green Card holder) or the holder of certain other special status (e.g., has been granted refugee or asylum status) or a player who qualifies under the Homegrown International Rule*. There is no limit as to the number of U.S. Domestic Players on a U.S. Club's Roster.
  • Canada-based Clubs: For Canadian Clubs, a domestic player is either a Canadian Citizen or the holder of certain other special status (e.g., has been granted refugee or asylum status), a player who qualifies under the Homegrown International Rule*, or a U.S. Domestic Player. There is no limit as to the number of Canadian Domestic Players on a Canadian club's roster.

There is no limit as to the number of U.S. Domestic Players or Canadian Domestic Players on a Canadian club's roster; provided, however, that a Canadian Club is required to have a minimum of three Canadian Domestic Players on its roster at all times.