One of the most popular criticisms of Major League Soccer has been its lack of transparency, especially regarding league rules. The league seems to make up its rules as it goes. Orlando City’s fine for tampering last week is just another example of the problem of lack of transparency in MLS.
It’s always been a problem, but has come into the forefront only recently. In 2013, U.S. Men’s National Team captain Clint Dempsey decided to return to MLS from Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. The only club he wanted to go to was the Seattle Sounders. But MLS has rules for the allocation of national team players, which prevented him from going to his preferred destination.
Rather than sticking to the bylaws of the league, MLS simply changed the rule midseason. From now on, or until they decide to arbitrarily change it again, U.S. international "players of a certain threshold" would be allowed to choose their own destinations.
The topic of transparency came up again just a year later, when fellow U.S. international Jermaine Jones decided to move to MLS in what became a long, drawn-out, and very peculiar situation. Like Dempsey, Jones was considered a “player of a certain threshold.” He had been in discussions with the Chicago Fire and was ready to make the move when the New England Revolution also became interested. With two suitors for the midfielder, MLS came up with a new mechanism for deciding where players would play, the blind draw.
Situations such as these have routinely brought into question not just transparency, but the legitimacy of a league that would create such problems. While not quite as problematic as the previously mentioned situations, Orlando City's recent fine again brought MLS transparency into question.
During last week’s Orlando City Coach’s Show with Adrian Heath, the Lions boss expressed his desire to bring Sporting Kanas City striker Dom Dwyer back to Orlando. Dwyer had previously been on loan wit the club in 2013.
"There's no secret that Dom wants to be here," Heath explained. "We've tried to get him here. We've done everything we can. Unfortunately we can't do it yet. I think this is his spiritual home. He wants to come back and we'd love to have him."
The statements by Heath drew a harsh response from Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes, calling the comments “unprofessional” and “uncalled for.” Despite apologizing to Vermes for the comments about his striker, MLS fined Heath an undisclosed amount.
While the comments by Heath may have been ill-advised, the fine once again brings into question transparency issues with MLS. Most fans and media alike were unsure if Heath could be fined for tampering or if tampering even existed in the single-entity structure.
MLS clubs are not owned by individuals but by the league, and ownership of the league consists of the investors who operate the clubs. So, while each club is run by a specific group, the totality of the league is owned by its investors. One interesting way you could look at it is that Flavio Augusto da Silva, operator of Orlando City SC, owns as much of Sporting Kansas City as the Sporting Club group, and was essentially fined for Heath’s comments about a player da Silva himself employs. (Obviously though, “employment” by each club is handled locally.)
Being that a single-entity structure is built for non-competition, the idea of MLS being single-entity is convoluted and confusing. To keep some sense of order and understanding, MLS needs to be more forthcoming in the future. Still today, there are many rules in the league that are ambiguous or too difficult for clubs to follow.
As long as MLS continues to make up rules on the fly or keep secretive rules, there will be questions about the legitimacy of the league. Fans, media, and clubs alike need to understand the league's rules to sort out situations such as the one that came up this past week. Hopefully one day Don Garber will stick to the league's bylaws. Until then, we'll just wait for the next midseason rule change.