Is the Nocerino dispute the death knell for one of MLS’ most controversial rules?

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MLS’ Discovery Rule is attracting plenty of attention because of the dispute between Orlando City and DC United over the dealings with Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino. DC United has a discovery claim on the player and were attempting to negotiate with him until it emerged that Orlando City had offered him a contract worth about 22% more annually. Orlando City had already been fined when Adrian Heath made public overtures about wanting to sign Sporting Kansas City’s forward Dom Dwyer, and if they are found guilty of tampering, more fines and other penalties could be in the offing.

Before delving into the usefulness of the rule, it is important to understand why the rule exists to begin with. MLS is still a single-entity league with artificial limits imposed on salary. The rule was created to prevent bidding wars between MLS clubs for players in which the salaries would go over market value as determined by the league since they control the contracts. In times gone by, this was necessary in order to keep clubs above water on salaries so they weren’t paying players far beyond what they were worth in a world where salaries were rapidly escalating without end. And it is only natural to assume that many in the league expected disputes over discovery signings to be minimal and kept in house, too.

The Discovery Signing also served a useful purpose in maintaining league harmony. Single-entity structures only succeed if everyone is (mostly) on board, and the rule allowed for owners to limit their investment in a calculated manner while keeping everyone on board and content. Owners also owned multiple teams at the time of the rule’s creation, so the number of mouths to feed was dramatically smaller than it was today. The owners at that time also had much deeper hooks into the league than some of the news owners today, including and especially Orlando City’s brass.

So this controversy is about a rule that may have run its course that has pit an MLS “legacy” franchise against an expansion team from last season that has a history of ruffling a few feathers. And while the rule can be considered draconian, there are restrictions on it. Discovery claims are not permanent, and each team can only have seven of them at a time, and these lists are not public. However, teams would be made aware of them if they made a discovery claim on a player that was already on another team’s list, as is the case. After a certain amount of time, another team can purchase the discovery rights for $50,000 in allocation money if the club who holds the rights doesn’t make an “objectively reasonable” offer. Is DC United’s offer of $700,000 per year over two years “objectively reasonable” compared to $900,000 per year over two years? Only MLS can make this decision. If it is, then DC United holds all the cards and Nocerino could effectively be held at ransom if he doesn’t want to play in Washington.

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