Reining in MLS’ Foreign Player Addiction

Two of these DC signings have already been waived/photo from

At the conclusion of a successful 2007 season which saw MLS’ attendance at it highest level since the inaugural season of 1996 and media coverage beyond once imaginable levels, the league opted to increase the number of international squad spots to eight from the previous four senior and three youth internationals. This new rule has created a situation where clubs no longer have to consider waiving a foreign player to sign another (since few clubs are at their limit considering green card holders are exempted from the eight player limit) as was the case for much of MLS’ existence. Eight internationals is four more than were allowed throughout most of MLS’ existence a period of time when the league helped the growth of the US National Team as well as the CONCACAF region in general.

MLS Teams rushed to fill their new found foreign player slots. Some sides like DC United unveiled four foreign signings in a single press event and other clubs talked up the signing of foreign players most of whom had limited or no national team experience as the types of players who could transform MLS and grow the club game in North America.

For every Luciano Emilio and Christian Gomez their seems to be as many if not more Mathias Cordoba’s or Franco Neil’s. This situation mirrors that of 1998 when using the addition of the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion as a justification the league added a fifth foreign player spot for each MLS side. This led to signings of the likes of Marquinho, Roger Thomas, Gilmar, and the unforgettable Jerry Tamishiro. The next year the foreign player limit was dropped back down to four.

Much like ten years earlier, this season MLS clubs seem to rely on reputation or nationality to sign foreign players rather than their actual value in enhancing the product on the field. In other words if players have not been regulars on their national teams in most cases they will not contribute positively to MLS. Franco Neil, Franco Carracio, Celestine Babyaro, Jose Carvallo, Mathias Cordoba and others are evidence of the problems MLS faces in simply signing random foreign players with no international pedigree. Even those players who have thus escape being waived by their clubs in the league like Ivan Trujillo seem to be deleivering less on the pitch than was advertised while Americans who come back home from Europe this season like Nat Borchers, Ramiro Corrales and Josh Wolff have paid instant dividends for their MLS clubs.

The situation as it currently stands is not conducive with the goal to build soccer in this region and produce a respectable product while helping to the development of home grown players. For example just last week, Toronto FC waived Andrea Lombardo a Candadian forward with some promise to sign yet another foreign player. This leaves TFC with only four Canadian field players on its squad, and as Canada’s lone FIFA sanctioned first division professional side this is appalling and totally unacceptable.

I propose significant changes to MLS squad structure assuming the salary cap and current roster limits remain in place:

  • All players from the CONCACAF region are exempted from foreign player limits.
  • Players under 21 may be signed with no restrictions.
  • Each MLS Team is allowed three non-CONCACAF nationality players over the age of 23 and only two of these players may not have been called into their respective national team squad (not played, a key distinction between my proposal and the work permit rules in England) at least 50% of the time in the last three years. In other words, at least one of the three players must be a current national team player In addition all three players will be up to review at the end of each season. If they do not feature in at least 50% of the matches they were healthy enough to play in while under contract in MLS, they will be released from their contract at year’s end. These spots are not transferable between clubs.
  • Designated Players are exempted from all above criteria. Each squad may have one non CONCACAF nation designated player and one DP from the CONCACAF region for a total of two DPs. These spots are no longer transferable between clubs.
  • Toronto FC must maintain a squad with at least ten Canadian players.

With these simple changes to MLS squads will be more competitive and also deliver more quality in the terms of football. In addition, the continued development of players from the CONCACAF region will be stressed over the continued signing of mediocre talent from outside the region. MLS will long term be a better product and the national teams of the CONCACAF region and ultimately the regions competitiveness on the world stage will be beneficiaries of the new MLS.

9 thoughts on “Reining in MLS’ Foreign Player Addiction”

  1. A very interesting idea. While I get as excited as any about foreign signings that do well (Christian Gomez, Jamison Olave, etc.), what I really want in the long run is for MLS to effectively contribute to building the USA’s talent pool (and CONCACAF in general–whose growth will only contribute to the quality of our nation’s squad). You should text your idea to Garber. See what he says. :)

    I am curious as to whether or not you feel that this will dissuade foreign players from coming over in the long run. How common is the practice of international players to go along with the 1 year trial idea?

    Also, I think it is great for US players to be able to go abroad and then bring that experience back to MLS. It’s great to see Nat Borchers come back and shore up RSL’s previously terrible backline (all respect to Pope, but one man can’t do it alone). Obviously he has had help from that wonderful monster Olave, but it’s cool to see him back and doing so well. I’m glad to see teams taking that approach with Wolff, and the others you mentioned, instead of just hoping that some foreign acquisition will solve whatever problem.

  2. Why force TFC to have 10 Canadians on their side, when there may not be that many quality players available to cram under the salary cap.

  3. I like the thinking here.

    I too was put out when the league in its infinite wisdom decided to essentially double the allowable senior number of foreign internationals which hastened the departure of Clarence Goodson, Clint Mathis, Pat Noonan and others.

    Honestly, this league isn’t attracting the types of foreign players in England, Spain or even Mexico.

    So the simple question has to be asked. Are these signings actually helping MLS, and do these players actually contribute more to the league than an American that plays the same position and fills the same role?

    Some cases can be obviously answered yes.

    Most cases are an even more obvious no.

    Did Franco Neill show a skill level that no available American possessed? How about Carracio? Cordoba? Were these guys signed because they were Argentine and it was assumed they were more skilled than the Americans that were available?

    MLS shows less faith in the American player these days than many clubs in Europe do. That in itself is pathetic.

  4. Good piece.

    I wonder if CONCACAF players should be exempted or if it simply be Americans and Canadians?

    After all Jamaicans and Trinidadians have always counted as foreign players in this league and they have domestic leagues of their own.

  5. Only CONCACAF players from countries without a top professional league should be exempt. Canada, yes, Mexico, NO! Also, I don’t see the drop lull in new foreign player signings as a problems with foreign tallent, but a MLS teams scouting networks. As the Earthquakes have proven, the foreign player markest is a deep well, which should NEVER be rushed into. Obviously that happened this year. MLS teams will self correct, or already have.

  6. This is quite honestly one of the best articles on MLS I have read in sometime. It cuts beyond the typical “MLS Sucks” or “MLS is GREAT” arguments. It gives more than news and no analysis as some commentators with similar sites engage in. This is an original idea which I believe has some merit. It’s not perfect but is certainly worthy of discussion.

  7. I like this post and where you are taking this discussion.

    The USSF and MLS need to talk to you about this to at least to get the ball rolling.

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