For years Major League Soccer has protected its financial records with a ruthlessness that is both admirable and somewhat worrying. Outsiders can only speculate as to whether the league’s financial health is good or not, and to whether teams actually adhere to salary cap. Much positive press was generated this past year as MLS owners passed the “Designated Player Rule” aka the Beckham Rule which allowed teams to circumvent the salary cap to sign one international superstar. Obviously team such as the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire (both owned by Phil Anschutz) made splashy signings, but is this really any different than MLS practices from the leagues first few seasons? The answer is in my humble opinion is no. For years certain franchise like the LA Galaxy were allowed to sign players in violation of the salary cap while other franchises such as DC United were told by the league to dump salary and players because they were over the cap.
When MLS began play in 1996 several recognizable international superstars dawned the pitch. Roberto Donadoni, Walter Zenga and Carlos Valderrama among others made salaries reported to be above that of the overall salary cap itself. In 2000, MLS went on spree of signing players who were active Europe, including Lothar Matthaeus, Khodobad Azizi, Miklos Molnar, and Hristo Stoitchkov. That same year the league made what was a disastrous signing of Luis Hernandez for a reported transfer fee of $5 million from the Mexican League. Around the same time the league made failed courtships to the likes of George Weah, Claudio Cannigia and Davor Suker. There is no way any of those players were taking a mere $6,000 a week in wages.
In 2004 the league signed former World Cup winner Yourri Djorkaeff who unlike so many of the aforementioned players actually came to MLS planning to compete rather than sit back and collect a paycheck while taking an extended holiday. The next year Landon Donovan returned to Major League Soccer after a failed stint in Germany and was reportedly paid close to a million dollars a year, which would make it mathematically impossible for LA to fit him along with 17 other senior roster players under the salary cap.
What the Beckham rule seems to be is simply codifying what has been an unofficial MLS policy for years. If a player abroad shows any interest in playing in the United States, Major League Soccer will attempt to sign him. But what the rule has done is create a splash in Europe and South America by publicizing what it has for so long denied: that it will pay top dollar for the rare player it believes will increase attendance and television ratings. Personally, I believe this is the right policy but am still at a loss to explain why MLS denied what its existence for over ten years.