Ahead of the debut season for MLS NEXT PRO, The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter broke down the league’s brand new rules and regulations that are starkly different from that of MLS.
The third-division league will be a mixture of MLS and independent teams (beginning with Rochester New York FC) so teams and players will be managed by a different system than the single-entity model of MLS. Gone are the in-league trades, TAM, GAM, and other MLS machinations that create unnecessary opacity to league operations. Teams can no longer poach prospects from other MLS NEXT PRO clubs by way of the SuperDraft either, but there is still room for clarification on how this applies to current college academy products. Instead, players will experience a league far more similar to that of other international leagues where players sign with their club rather than with the league and can thus be transferred for cash fees within the league or outside of it. Gone are the salary caps, designated player slots, and other means of creating parity. The only limitations in place are the 7 international player slots per team that can be traded within the league.
As far as player rights go, Rueter reports that there are four main categories of players on these squads, three of which can be protected.
The main category will be Homegrown players and academy prospects who will have the same rights and protections that they currently do. The second group will be players selected in the SuperDraft whose rights will strictly belong to the drafting club for 3 transfer windows (about 12 months). The third group, which is the most fluid of the three, will be players under the age of 24 to which teams can claim a limited number of special discovery priority rights (at least 3 slots).
The fourth group of players have no exclusive protections for the club that signs them. Teams can claim them for a negotiated transfer in a system that feels a little bit like Minor League Baseball’s Rule-5 Draft or the Waiver Wire after the Trade Deadline.
In the event that Team A wants to sign an unprotected player from Team B’s MLS Next Pro roster, the two sides will have to come to an agreement to acquire the player’s rights. Team A would need to put that player on their discovery list to have exclusive negotiating rights to the player. From there, Team A and Team B would negotiate a transfer or loan agreement to settle their business before Team A could negotiate terms with the player for a contract.
At the moment, Rueter reports that there does not seem to be a requirement on the number of players signed to the MLS NEXT PRO roster per team but that the general expectation is teams will carry at least 12 players specifically on MLS NEXT PRO contracts with a maximum of 24 players on the roster. Unsigned academy players do not count towards that 24-player maximum with an additional 11 academy players eligible to grow rosters to 35 players.
During a match, at least half of each side on the field per team (six players or more) must be professional players on contracts, with only five academy amateurs allowed at any given time. This will be a nightmare for 4th officials and coaches on the sideline to manage if this rule goes through so it is possible that it is either abandoned or loosely enforced.
There are a lot of rules in the works and plenty more left to be ironed out through the league’s inaugural season but it seems that MLS is serious about making this league more competitive, sustainable, and ambitious than the former MLS Reserve League. Atlanta United, along with DC United, LA Galaxy, and the New York Red Bulls will be watching closely from the USL Championship as they prepare to join this new league in 2023.