Over the years, Major League Soccer has gone through many versions. The first came on a floppy disc at Blockbuster and included a clock that counted down, penalty shootouts to determine the winners of tied games, and teams wearing wild kits. This evolved through the years with the league attracting formerly great players at the end of their careers on the verge of retirement. Then, of course, there was the “get all of the USMNT players to stay here forever” era.
Over the past few seasons though, the league has evolved. MLS started bringing in players closer to their prime that were either not cutting it in bigger leagues or decent players in their nations’ domestic league but could excel against American college graduates. That period also saw players with bright futures start to come to the States. Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Diego Rossi, Jesus Medina, and others made the jump to MLS early in their career with the hope of eventually moving on to top five leagues in Europe. Some have panned out, some haven’t, and others are still awaiting a decision. Alongside that trend, MLS academies also started producing American players that contributed to their teams and were eventually sold abroad.
The success of these two pathways for players to make revenue for the league has wetted the appetite of MLS and led to the creation of a new player category. Move over TAM, GAM, Designated Players, and Generation Adidas players, get ready to meet U-22s.
Sam Stejskal of the Athletic gave some details about the signings, but the basics are that teams can now sign up to three U-22 players at any transfer fee as long as their salary is below the league salary cap maximum and they will be able to be charged to the salary budget at a lower cost. College draft picks and homegrown players are included as well. It is a pretty good deal for ambitious teams that want to get better at certain positions they normally wouldn’t use a designated player for. For example, soccer is about scoring goals. The best players at scoring goals tend to cost more in terms of transfer fees and salary and thus it makes the most sense to sign them as designated players as opposed to spending that money on centerbacks.
In terms of what this means for MLS, it’s a sign that the league will continue to improve its on-field product since more talented players will be at more positions potentially. On first glance, it might also be concerning for Americans in the league. This gets into the “THEY TOOK OUR JOBS” anxiety that international players coming to MLS seems to engender. The logic being that international players will be signed who are better than Americans and take their spot on the roster.
However, that narrative doesn’t seem to play out and shouldn’t be a concern at this point either. For one thing, teams still need to find international slots which cost either assets they have or enough time for labor lawyers to obtain a green card. For another, the rule also applies to college draft picks and homegrown players, though it seems like the advantages those players will have over their international counter parts is that they cost much less in terms of cost to the salary cap and don’t require a transfer fee. Past rules like the invention of TAM also raised similar concerns, but the TAM era also coincided with the development of the homegrown player transfer pipeline. Not only that, but MLS is also growing and with three more teams set to join the league, there will be plenty of opportunity for the typical anonymous American college graduate to find a role in the league. Finally, there’s nothing to say that the players who would be pushed out of roster spots for the new U-22s wouldn’t be internationals anyway.
MLS has made huge progress in just the last five years. New players joining the league to be sold abroad is a big opportunity for MLS. The more players the league develops and sells, the more resources can be used to improve team facilities, scouting, facilities, youth development, and everything else that mark the best clubs in the world. In the long run, the success of the league as a whole has been, and will continue to be, a net benefit to the sport as a whole and the future of the USMNT as well.