Messi should be the tipping point for draconian MLS roster rules

Bow bellAmerican football writerJul 15, 2023, 03:38 PM ET6 minute reading

Messi makes ‘Vice City’ dreams come true with Miami move

Fans of Inter Miami and residents of the city can’t wait for Lionel Messi to take to the pitch for their side.

Lionel Messi has come to MLS to play for Inter Miami CF. It is a watershed moment for the league as arguably the greatest player in the game’s history 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. MSenior owner Jorge Mas confirmed that the Argentina captain and recently signed designated player will earn between $50 million and $60 million per 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 bring in three designated players whose salaries only count toward the $612,500 cap, regardless of what they actually earn. So Messi’s salary of $50 million to $60 million? For ceiling purposes, it is barely 1% of that.

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

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

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

Pizarro, who had very 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 spot that Messi now occupies.

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

For Alba, it is both simpler and more complicated.

He is expected to participate using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), which caps his salary at $1,612,500 per year. Each team in the league has $2,720,000 in TAM available to them in 2023 – essentially a salary cap supplement – but as part of the penalties imposed on Inter for their previous salary cap, they have had $2,271,250 deducted from their allocation spread over the 2022 and 2023 seasons, making it a scarce resource on South Beach.

Simple, right?

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

For the 2023 season, the MLS salary budget is $5,210,000 per team, which excludes DPs and award 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 a pivot for how MLS approaches roster building and consumption.

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

Former Barcelona talents Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are expected to join Lionel Messi at Inter Miami this summer.JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

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

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

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

Our dearly departed colleague Grant Wahl used to post his annual Ambition Rankings of MLS teamswhich no doubt annoyed the clubs at the bottom, but it informed fans of how their team’s ownership approached investment – from infrastructure to player personnel.

With that in mind, MLS is at a stage where the ambition of the likes of Inter Miami and LAFC needs to be facilitated, not contained.

The league is in its 28th season. The delicate nature of its infancy and teenage years, when its existence was far from guaranteed, is long in the past. By age 28, most of us have moved out of our parents’ house and achieved 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 MLS write $500 million checks to operate a new expansion franchise but are subsequently limited to a salary cap that is only 6.2% of the NHL (the second most financially constrained major- men’s league in the USA) 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 shouldn’t be so dramatically shackled.

Messi’s arrival in Miami will no doubt bring many more eyes to MLS both far away and within those borders. Relaxing the rules on spending lists for ambitious teams like Inter would strengthen the league and improve its ability to keep those viewers well after the Argentine magician moves from South Beach.

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