Last week, Orlando City transferred star midfielder Yoshimar Yotún to Liga MX side Cruz Azul. Despite the club submitting new offers to retain the Peruvian, the player wanted to leave for the stronger side in a better league. While multiple factors could be blamed for the departure, the Lions are another victim of MLS’ refusal to evolve.
When MLS launched in 1996, the league’s setup was single-entity, a system in which the league owns all player contracts and creates its own rules for player distribution. In the early years, the league had as few as three operators of teams, making that structure necessary. Proof of this was when the players sued the league for violating anti-trust laws but the judge stated that, while the league technically did, it was to save the league from potential dissolution.
In the 1970s, the original North American Soccer League teams entered bidding wars for players, which eventually led to the league’s demise. A major reason for MLS’ single-entity system is to keep the cost of player contracts down. But this causes the better players that are not one of the few Designated Players to seek employment elsewhere.
It’s fair to say that Orlando City’s operators don’t want to spend the money to compete with other big-market teams but this move is not entirely their fault. Sure, part of Yotún’s reasoning for leaving may be that the club has been in a downward spiral over the past four years, but there were also financial considerations. Not only was Orlando City limited in what it could offer the midfielder but every other team in the league was as well. He also wouldn’t have any say in the team he were to go to should he want to leave but remain in the league.
The roster rules implemented by MLS are the biggest reason why the league is well behind its southern neighbors. Despite the league’s insistence that the American top tier league is not much worse than Liga MX, results on the field would suggest otherwise.
The best way to compare MLS with Liga MX is through the Concacaf Champions League, in which teams from the two leagues compete on the field. In three of the last five years, both finalists in the competition were Mexican clubs, and in two of those years at least three of the four semifinalists were Mexican. In total, MLS has won four times and lost 13 times against Mexican clubs. The most recent tournament saw teams go 3-3 and Toronto nearly knocked off C.D. Guadalajara but that was the first time MLS clubs won as many games as they had lost.
Considering that teams are able to pay more on average for their players and the teams have a greater chance of winning more meaningful silverware, it’s no surprise that so many players head south. Given that Yotún is in the middle of his prime at 28 years old, it’s hard to blame him for making such a move.
The rules that once kept MLS in business are now a hindrance as the league has continued to grow in popularity and television rights have risen. As long as those in the league office insist on keeping the power, the clubs will suffer as they continue to see their best players depart for greener pastures. Orlando City is just the latest in a long line of clubs suffering from this problem.