Last week, Orlando City signed midfielder Tony Rocha and defender Mikey Ambrose from Orlando City B to senior squad deals. In order to acquire the rights to sign these two players, the club had to make trades with two other MLS clubs. While the rules that required one of those trades makes sense, the other doesn't.
From 2011 to 2014, Tony Rocha played for the University of Tulsa, starting 73 games for the Golden Hurricane. Following his collegiate career, Rocha was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft with the 73rd overall pick by Sporting Kansas City.
As with many fourth-round picks, Rocha was cut before the 2015 MLS sesason, forcing him to find another place to play. The club he found was the Austin Aztex of the USL, the club he had played for in 2012 when they were still in the PDL. After just one year with the Aztex, the Texan club went on hiatus as they lacked a proper place to play. Looking for a new club to join, Rocha signed with OCB.
Shortly after his arrival, it was clear the Rocha would be a player Orlando City would look at signing to an MLS contract. He spent most of the preseason with the senior team before joining OCB for the USL season. As the year has gone on, Rocha has made appearances in friendlies and U.S. Open Cup games before finally signing an MLS contract last week.
While Rocha had never made an official appearance for SKC, and even though the club had cut him, they still owned his MLS rights, as Major League Soccer clubs draft the rights of players rather than the players themselves. This forced Orlando City to trade a fourth-round pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft to acquire the right to sign the midfielder.
So that begs the question, if a player is cut by a club, why do they still own his rights? The club that cut him clearly doesn't want him, nor do they see him in their future plans. The logical thing to happen would be that the club that cut him would surrender its rights to the player.
But how does that work without free agency? MLS has a USL/NASL priority ranking and discovery lists, which allow MLS clubs to select players from those leagues in a certain order. If a team is willing to use a discovery spot on a player like Rocha, why shouldn't it be allowed to?
The situation with Ambrose is much different. Mikey Ambrose came through the FC Dallas academy before attending the University of Maryland. After making the decision to leave Maryland, following an impressive junior year, FC Dallas began negotiations to sign the defender as a Homegrown Player. However, negotiations broke down and Ambrose signed with the Austin Aztex for the 2015 season.
The purpose of the Homegrown Player rule is to persuade MLS clubs to invest heavily in their academies. If a club loses the rights to a player without anything in return, despite the fact that it wanted to sign the player, the team may be much less convinced to invest in these young academy players in the future. Allowing these clubs to retain the rights should negotiations break down gives the clubs some insurance.
While Rocha and Ambrose joined Orlando City in a similar way, having played together in Austin and then joining OCB together, their situations are very different. SKC made it clear that it didn't want Rocha but still was able to obtain a draft pick, albeit a fourth-rounder, for his rights. This would have much more sense had the club wanted the player, but the fact that it didn't want Rocha makes the trade absurd.
Ambrose, on the other hand, is a much different situation. FC Dallas wanted to sign the player to a Homegrown deal but was unable to come to terms. It makes complete sense that FC Dallas would want -- and deserves -- some kind of compensation for the rights to the player.
These rules won't be a surprise to most MLS fans, as the league has a long list of rules that have no logical purpose other than to make money. While the rule that forced Orlando City to cough up a third-round pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft to obtain Ambrose makes complete sense, the rule that forced the Lions to trade for Rocha's rights is just another in a long line of rules that are ridiculous. Regardless, Orlando City now has the two players from its reserve team that they coveted, albeit for a price.