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Messi should be turning point for draconian MLS roster rules

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Lionel Messi has come to MLS to play for Inter Miami CF. It is a seminal moment for the league in that arguably the greatest player in the history of the game has arrived on these shores less than a year after winning the World Cup, where he was named the tournament’s best player.

Getting Messi to Miami is a big enough financial hurdle. Managing owner Jorge Mas confirmed that the Argentina captain and newly signed designated player will make between $50 million and $60 million a year — more than the 2023 team salaries of Real Salt Lake, Orlando City SC, New York Red Bulls, St. Louis City SC and CF Montreal combined — in a deal that runs through the 2025 season, with sources telling ESPN there is an option for the 2026 campaign.

The MLS rulebook stipulates that clubs can carry three designated players, whose salaries will count for only $612,500 against the cap, regardless of what they actually earn. So Messi’s wages of $50 million to $60 million? For cap purposes, it’s barely 1% of that.

From a roster rules perspective, signing Messi was relatively easy. The hard part is fitting fellow longtime friends and former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba on the roster.

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Why not sign them to similarly lucrative DP deals as well? Because the South Florida club already had three designated players on its books: striker Leonardo Campana, midfielder Gregore and attacker Rodolfo Pizarro. Miami tried exceeding the DP threshold once before, in 2020, when it emerged that it essentially fielded five of them. It received the stiffest fine in MLS history for its efforts.

The club has had to do some salary cap gymnastics to make all this work.

Pizarro, with precious little time to negotiate a transfer out of the club, agreed to terminate the remainder of his contract on Friday night. That freed up the DP slot that Messi now occupies.

Gregore, with a salary of $826,000 according to the MLS Players Association, will have his contract bought down using General Allocation Money (GAM), one of the league’s roster-building mechanisms. That will clear a path for Busquets to sign a DP deal of his own.

For Alba, it’s both simpler and more complicated.

He is expected to join using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), which caps his salary at $1,612,500 per year. Every team in the league has $2,720,000 in TAM available to it in 2023 — essentially supplementing the salary cap — but as part of the sanctions levied against Inter for their past salary cap discretions, they have had $2,271,250 deducted from their allocation allotment spread across the 2022 and 2023 seasons, making it a scarce resource on South Beach.

Simple, right?

Now, just imagine if Luis Suarez or any other of Messi’s friends wanted to join him in Miami. The club would no doubt love to make that happen, but MLS salary rules would make it nigh on impossible.

For the 2023 season, the MLS salary budget is $5,210,000 per team, which excludes DPs and allocation money. Such conservative limits have helped make MLS a financially secure league, but the arrival of Messi (with Busquets and Alba surely not far behind) could serve as an inflection point as to how MLS approaches roster building and spending.

Inter Miami are not alone in the desire to go big. Clubs like Toronto FC, Atlanta United, the LA Galaxy and LAFC have a penchant for splashing the cash to lure big names to their teams. Why should they be restrained to such an extreme degree?

“If you want to consistently compete in [continental] finals and win these, you’re going to have to rethink your roster rules and regulations,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said after his side’s Concacaf Champions League final defeat to Liga MX side Leon last month. “You’re at a big disadvantage. There’s a little more money on [Liga MX’s] side of the table, and money in this game buys quality players.

“But I think with our scheduling and all the competitions this year, we had a lot going on, and we ended up in the final not at our best moment. Roster building is about that, and having deeper rosters and more players — quality players on your team will allow you to extend those periods of play, and every MLS team is at a disadvantage there.”

Factor in that now every team in MLS is playing in the Leagues Cup tournament against Liga MX opposition, you are talking about a bare minimum of three different competitions for the league’s teams (MLS, U.S. Open Cup and League Cup), not to mention beginning in 2024 a possible eight teams involved in a fourth: the Concacaf Champions Cup.

Our dearly departed colleague Grant Wahl used to post his annual Ambition Rankings of MLS teams, which no doubt irked the brass of those clubs at the bottom, but it informed fans how their team’s ownership was approaching investment — from infrastructure to player personnel.

With that in mind, MLS is at a stage in which the ambition of the likes of Inter Miami and LAFC should be facilitated, not kept in check.

The league is in its 28th season. The delicate nature of its infancy and adolescence, when its existence was far from guaranteed, are long in the past. By the age of 28, most of us have moved out of our parents’ house and managed financial independence, able to pay our own bills and learn from our mistakes. MLS teams can do it, too.

There is a logical disconnect when ownership groups new to to MLS are writing $500 million checks to operate a new expansion franchise, yet are then subsequently limited to a salary cap that’s just 6.2% of what NHL (the next-most financially limited major men’s league in the U.S.) teams are allowed to spend annually. If the money is there to start the team, then the money to construct a roster to their liking should not be so dramatically shackled.

Messi’s arrival in Miami will no doubt bring many more eyeballs to MLS from both afar and inside these borders. A loosening of roster-spending regulations for ambitious teams like Inter would strengthen the league and enhance its ability to keep those viewers well after the Argentinian magician moves on from South Beach.

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