MLS Rules on Territorial Rights Must Change



Major League Soccer has several archaic rules instituted to provide parity and protect its less ambitious teams. This includes Discovery rights, Allocation Money, and territorial rights. The latter came into play last week when Orlando City gained a first-round draft pick in a trade simply because of their location. That needs to change.

Having territorial rights essentially means MLS teams have the rights to a player who lives in their area. That area differs depending on the team, but is between 75 and 100 miles from the team’s base location. Even if the player has never played for the club or has no interest in playing for the club, he has no choice when it comes to his MLS rights.

This has been a controversial rule in recent years. Some teams seem to love the rule as it protects them from needing to spend money on their academies to protect players. Those that already care deeply about player development seem to despise the rule, as it limits what they can do with their academy. When most people talk about territorial rights, they talk about how it impacts parity and competition for young players. But there are other reasons why this rule needs to be abolished. Two of those reasons were recently displayed.

On Friday, Orlando City traded the rights to defender Nathan Harriel to the Philadelphia Union for a first-round SuperDraft pick. The problem with that deal is that the Lions never should’ve had Harriel’s rights in the first place. The teenager never played for Orlando City’s youth development academy.

Harriel initially played for Chargers SC in Clearwater. He joined the U.S. Development Academy teams at the U-15/16 level and was there until part way through the 2018-19 season when he was at the U-18/19 level. He then joined the Philadelphia Union academy, where he spent the rest of that season and the 2019-20 season. He was recently listed to the Philadelphia Union II roster for the 2020 season.

Despite significant playing time for the Union’s academy and never playing for Orlando City, the Union had to trade for Harriel’s rights before signing him as a Homegrown Player. They made that signing on Friday after the trade with Orlando.

Another problem with MLS’ territorial rights is what we’re seeing in Minnesota. Minnesota United FC recently made the decision to “suspend” its academy for the time being. While some claim it was waiting for the new academy system to start, others say the club underplayed its academy for quite a while. It came to a head when the club released many of its academy coaches.

The suspension of its academy has left many Minnesota United-tied players in a difficult position. Some of its best players would love to join a new MLS academy, but there’s a problem. Minnesota United still holds many of their territorial rights and refuses to release them. Even though it currently doesn’t have an academy, it holds those rights. It’s detrimental for another MLS team to bring them into their academy as they would have to pay to develop a player for a competitor.

Currently, the parents of some of Minnesota’s young players are desperate for an answer about what to do. The club has told them they are keeping their rights and will not release the players to join another academy. Without territorial rights, those players could join another MLS academy and become a potential Homegrown Player for that club. Instead, they’re stuck trying to figure out what their child’s future will hold and who to contact to get them back on the track to MLS.

Territorial rights to academy players have been a problem in MLS for a while. Even if an MLS club doesn’t provide a place for a player to play, it keeps his rights, making it difficult for him to find another quality academy. If he is accepted by another MLS academy, the new club would have to trade for his rights, even if he never played for the other academy. It’s a ridiculous system and needs to change. We’ve seen that displayed once again over the past few weeks.


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