Luis Robles is hardly a household name, even among hardcore followers of the United States Men's National Team. After being picked in the fourth round of the 2007 MLS SuperDraft, the 27-year-old goalkeeper chose to try his luck in Europe. Since then, he's managed to make 49 appearances in the German second division and earned his only cap with the United States national team during the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup against Haiti.
By all appearances, Robles was not a player showing up on many MLS teams' radars. So, it was understandable that someone at MLS headquarters apparently told the New York Red Bulls that they were free to place a discovery claim on him and bypass the Allocation Ranking.
As you may know, MLS uses the Allocation Ranking to determine which team will get the chance to pick returning United States national team players or others players who have left the league for a transfer fee. While the exact wording of the rule seems to suggest it is reserved for current USMNT players, it has been applied to the likes of everyone from Sammy Ochoa (who has never played for the U.S. and hadn't even made a youth national team appearance since 2008) to Jay DeMerit (who was coming off a starting role for the World Cup team).
In light of this rather loose interpretation of the rule, it probably shouldn't have been shocking that MLS changed tack once news of Robles' imminent signing became public knowledge. Suddenly faced with the prospect of not being able to choose which team to play for, Robles understandably chose to re-assess his options.
A similar situation kept Marcus Hahnemann from joining MLS last season. The nine-time capped, 39-year-old goalkeeper appeared ready and willing to join the Seattle Sounders last season. It would have brought Hahnemann's career full-circle, as he starred collegiately at Seattle Pacific University and started his professional career with the Sounders when they were a USL team prior to a career in England, where he played for more than a decade. But the Sounders were well down in the Allocation Ranking and were unwilling to make the requisite trade that would have given them a shot at obtaining Hahnemann's services. Instead, Hahnemann signed with Everton.
These relatively public situations underscore the problems with the Allocation Ranking, and there are plenty of other examples of U.S. players choosing to play elsewhere rather than face the uncertainty. It's high time for MLS to rethink the entire system.
In thinking about the justification for the Allocation Ranking, I honestly can't come up with a satisfactory one. I suppose there are some concepts behind it: First, for a league that values parity, this is one way from keeping a team from gaining an unfair advantage and second, in a league that doesn't allow free agency, this keeps players from using stints in Europe as a way around team assignations.
Whether or not I like those concepts, I am willing to accept that MLS will not willingly change their thinking on them. Still, I would argue that there are better ways of keeping true to those principles than using the current system, while still making the league more attractive to our country's best players.
As it is now, just four players who were on the U.S. roster at the 2010 World Cup are playing for MLS teams. I estimate at least eight more would be willing to consider moves to MLS if they had some control over which team they were going to play for.
Here's what I suggest:
Scrap the whole system and make every player in the world not currently in MLS or whose rights are already controlled by a MLS team subject to a Discovery Claim. This probably isn't the most eloquent solution, but it would at least get rid of any ambiguity as to who is eligible. It would also get rid of the rather silly double standard in which foreign players have more freedom to pick and choose their teams than Americans do.
The danger here is that many teams will put in claims on the same players. Teams do have a limited number of Discovery Claims they can use, so it's not as if a team can just place claims on every player. Even in situations where multiple teams claimed the same player, MLS already has an established way of sorting it out.
This would not necessarily allow player coming from abroad to literally pick their teams, but it would remove the uncertainty that comes with going through Allocation. It would also make it very clear who a team must deal with if they want to acquire a specific player.
While this is far from a perfect solution, I do think it would accomplish the goal of making MLS more inviting to Americans currently playing overseas. A change like this might not be able to convince someone like Clint Dempsey to forego the glory of European success, but it can't possibly hurt. At the very least, it would seem to significantly increase MLS's chances of getting the players like Luis Robles, Marcus Hahnemann or even Carlos Bocanegra to come home.