Kudos to the Portland Timbers for signing their first-ever Homegrown Player. The signing of University of Washington product Brent Richards is great for him and a nice benchmark for one of Major League Soccer's newest clubs. Unfortunately, the signing turned into a bit of a controversy that probably could have been avoided if rules were made clearer and the league was more forthright about how this particular deal was handled.
News of the signing first broke a few days prior to it becoming official when Washington coach Jamie Clark let it slip during an interview with GoalWA.net. An initial round of speculation kicked off under the assumption that Richards' three years of experience on the Timbers' PDL team was the main auspice under which he'd be signed. That explanation didn't really wash, though, as hundreds of MLS players have come up through the ranks of PDL and even teams with affiliates, such as the Chicago Fire, were never granted HGP rights to those players.
What further muddied the waters is that the Timbers don't appear to have a team playing in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system. While the formal MLS rule makes no specific mention of academies, and instead refers to a club's "youth development program," every other player signed through the rule has participated in the academy system.
To his credit, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson took to Twitter to explain how the signing was allowed:
Paulson later added that MLS grandfathered the Timbers' USL academy into the system. He also added some clarification about PDL's role, noting that PDL experience alone would not qualify a player to be a HGP. Taking Paulson at his word, you can see a compelling case made for Richards. The fact that he spent three years with the Timbers' PDL team; played for Timbers-affiliated Eastside United FC; and participated in Oregon's ODP program which is now run by the Timbers, could all be considered as Richards' participating in the Timbers' youth development program, even if that doesn't fit into past MLS precedent.
The bigger problem, though, is the appearance that rules were being made up as the situation moved along. The rules on the MLS site are pretty vague. But when the rule was last publicly altered last year to allow unlimited HGP signings, there were some more specific guidelines. The Timbers' signing of Richards would seem to miss at least one of them: "Players must be added to an MLS team's Home Grown Player List prior to entering a four-year college."
The issue here is not so much Richards' signing. No other team would seem to have a legitimate HGP claim on him, even though he played collegiately just down the street from the Seattle Sounders, and he was not considered a top MLS SuperDraft prospect.
The bigger issue is what this means going forward. Carefully reading Paulson's Tweets makes it sound like this may have been a somewhat special situation. There probably aren't a long list of players who have so many different ties to the Timbers organization. Again, this is more of a perception issue. MLS would do well to be more open with their dealings.