The 2020 Major League Soccer season is set to kick off the last weekend of February. Orlando City’s first game is just a little over six weeks away, and while the club’s preseason schedule has yet to be announced at the time of writing this piece, it’s reasonable to assume the club will have its first preseason game sometime within the next three to four weeks. And yet, even though the MLS Cup final was played all the way back on Nov. 11, many teams have made fewer moves this off-season than they typically might.
Orlando City let 12 players walk away at the end of the season through a combination of contracts and loan deals expiring, not including new deals for Mason Stajduhar, Uri Rosell and Ruan. Discounting the draft, the club has signed six players to fill that void, including Jordan Bender and David Loera coming on as Homegrown Players, and acquired four more through the MLS SuperDraft. The total of 10 players brought in stacks up pretty well to the 12 that were allowed to walk away, although it’s likely that a good chunk of the Homegrown Players and draftees will either play with OCB or be sent out on loan, if all the draftees are even signed to contracts. The team has yet to sign a proven professional goalkeeper to either back up or compete with Brian Rowe (although we’re hearing that will happen soon), and probably still needs to bring in a couple more attacking players.
There’s still plenty of time to finish filling out the team’s roster, and by no means am I suggesting we should start alarm bells ringing. Last year Nani wasn’t signed until Feb. 18 and Brian Rowe wasn’t brought in until four days later. Hell, Robin Jansson wasn’t signed until after the season had already started. I do think it’s worth noting though, that of the club’s 12 signings during the last off-season (including Benji Michel joining as a Homegrown Player) nine were made between the beginning of December and Ruan’s Jan. 16 arrival.
My point in saying that is to say that the Lions have been a bit more methodical when it comes to off-season business compared to years past, even though things have begun to pick up recently. Part of that is undoubtedly born of a desire to finally get the roster right, but there’s another reason that seems to be contributing to the relatively slow pace of transfers not just in Orlando, but around the league.
That reason has to do with the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between Major League Soccer, and the Major League Soccer Players’ Association. The MLSPA is the entity that represents the athletes currently plying their trade in MLS, and the CBA is the set of terms and conditions by which those players agree to be employed by the league.
The CBA sets out various things like playing conditions, insurance coverage, competition guidelines, and a whole host of other things. You can find the current edition of the CBA here, and it’s a positively thrilling 84-page read. The current edition of the CBA is set to expire on Jan. 31 of this year, and while negotiations over the new agreement have been ongoing for some time, up until recently there didn’t seem to be a lot of progress.
Back in November Alejandro Bedoya spoke about being frustrated with negotiations, saying that the MLSPA had brought proposals to the league but hadn’t got much in the way of responses. Since then though, things seem to have improved, with Bedoya saying several days ago that he was a confident a deal would be done ahead of the player’s association’s stated deadline of Feb. 29 to ink a new deal and prevent a strike. In the meantime though, plenty of teams around the league have been more cautious than usual when it comes to spending money on transfers.
In part, that’s because the MLSPA wants to do away with Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). If you aren’t familiar with what TAM is, it was introduced back in 2015, and to quote the MLS website, “Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) are funds strategically provided by the league to teams to add or retain players that will make an immediate impact on the field.” In order to spend TAM to get a player, that individual basically has to be a pretty important player, making above the max contract, and who isn’t quite at Designated Player level. You can find all the specifics of how it works here, although it should be noted that the league increased the money teams got and could subsequently spend from the numbers listed on the former link.
The players’ association doesn’t care for TAM, with MLSPA Executive Director Bob Foose stating back in November that, ‘The impact of TAM, a made-up set of restrictions done from a central office to try and dictate to all of our franchises how they build their rosters, in my estimation didn’t really add anything to this league. And it’s certainly frustrated and angered both the players’ association and our players.’’ This has led to teams around the league to be leery of using TAM to sign players when they don’t know if it will still exist under the new CBA. This tweet from Jeffrey Carlisle does a pretty good job of summing things up.
Interesting nugget from #NashvilleSC GM Mike Jacobs on why GAM (and not TAM) changed hands in today's trades: "For us, we know about the present and future of GAM, so I think it was easier for us to part with…GAM rather than the fluidity of TAM." #BandTogether— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) January 9, 2020
“We don’t know the rules, we don’t know the money we [will] have. The most important thing for us is not to jeopardize any of the good players we have...So we are going to be conservative until that agreement is reached.”
I should point out that as far as Orlando City is concerned, Antonio Carlos, Andres Perea, and Rodrigo Schlegel have all been brought in on loans presumably without using TAM; and while we here at The Mane Land suspect Junior Urso will be a TAM signing (if TAM remains), nothing is official yet. The Lions, like the rest of the league seem to be wary of using those funds, and while part of the reason behind the loan deals for Carlos, Perea, and Schlegel may be that the club doesn’t want to buy young players and risk being stuck on them if they aren’t successful, doubts over TAM and the CBA are probably playing a part as well.
The good news is that Orlando has still been finding ways to get business done. As stated before, the team is close to replacing the number of players that left during the off-season, even though some young players will almost certainly either go out on loan or not be signed at all. The CBA negotiations are still something to keep an eye on though, especially as it gets closer and closer to that Feb. 29 date. And if a deal is indeed done in the coming weeks, expect there to be a noticeable uptick in transfer activity around the league.