As much as MLS prides itself on promoting parity, it should come as little surprise that the individual teams are constantly looking for competitive advantages. In that sense, the most significant move of the offseason almost certainly had nothing to do with a specific player being signed.
When it comes to the lasting effect it could have on MLS as a whole, that move almost certainly belongs to the LA Galaxy, who officially launched their USL Pro team today. In perfect Hollywood style, the team will be called LA Galaxy II.
But this isn't just about marketing. In fact, that's probably the absolute smallest part. Rather, this has potentially massive ramifications on MLS roster rules and player development.
In the release, we're told that LAGII (as we'll now refer to the USL team) will play a full USL Pro season of 28 games. The roster will consist of Galaxy reserves as well as players signed directly to LAGII. They can also have as many as five academy players on the team, as long as they are younger 21 years old and have never played collegiately or professionally. They will be coached Galaxy assistant Curt Onalfo. (Sidenote: Players currently competing in the NCAA can not play in USL Pro without risking college eligibility.)
Only given these facts, there are some obvious benefits. The biggest is probably that the reserves and academy players will suddenly have nearly three times as many opportunities to play against professional competition. These players will also get the benefit of being loaned out while not missing out on the opportunity to train with the first team.
But where this really gets interesting is when you look beyond those obvious benefits.
For instance, the USL Pro media guide tells us that each team can carry a roster of 26 players, plus five more academy players. That's 31 players the Galaxy potentially would not otherwise have the ability to train with on a regular basis. Those 31 players are also not subject to a salary cap, as USL Pro does not have one.
At that point, the number of loopholes you can find are limited only by your imagination. Alexi Lalas pointed out a few potential ones, like LAGII signing a $1 million player and loaning him to the Galaxy for almost nothing or the Galaxy "selling" a player to LAGII and reaping an allocation windfall. Andrew Wiebe, who's an editor for MLSsoccer.com, said a league spokesperson told him these kinds of moves would be monitored, but that still leaves some open questions. What would happen if the Galaxy and LAGII were to meet in the U.S. Open Cup? How will loans from one team to the other be treated? Assuming LAGII can actually sign their own players, what criteria is being used to determine whether or not it skirts MLS rules? Will all of this be codified somewhere other than Twitter?
Although there's reason to believe MLS is aware of potential loopholes, whether or not these specific loopholes will be closed before the Galaxy are able to exploit them is obviously unknown. It also appears MLS has already planned to plug them to some degree:
I'm told @MLS teams are able to put a discovery claim in on LA Galaxy II players that are not home-grown.— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) January 29, 2014
Assuming this is really the case, that would at least limit the Galaxy's ability to simply stash otherwise good players on LAGII's roster, but it hardly fixes everything.
What's particularly notable about all of this is that MLS has had no official comment yet. We know this is something that has been in the works for at least a year, as that was when this possibility was first announced. So, there's no good reason that someone at MLS headquarters shouldn't have been working on a plan that would make sense and could be announced as soon as a team was.
Of course, we know that's not really MLS's style. Commissioner Don Garber has effectively said that the league is sometimes forced to make rules up as they go along, but even when they don't it usually takes quite a bit of digging to find out how any particular mechanism works. Transparency -- yes, this has been a theme -- is not something MLS is known for.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't look for answers, though. As an optimist, I'll hold out hope that any player movement between the two clubs will be explained.
What's too bad is that there's ever reason to believe that this is a positive step in terms of developing professional players. This allows MLS teams to work with more players, to get them more time and presumably raise the level of play. But it's also impossible to ignore all the competitive advantages that may or may not have been intended. Once again, MLS has failed to make the most out of what should be a decision worth celebrating.