Sometimes MLS uses the allocation order and sometimes it goes with a weighted draw. Other times there are discovery claims or homegrowns. And then there are the times when it uses none of them. If you don't know what those mean, don't worry. MLS makes up most of its rules as it goes along anyway.
Exactly how a player ends up with a team is rarely straightforward in this league, and MLS has a remarkable capacity to come up with brand new ones on the fly. And when United States World Cup standout Jermaine Jones decided to move back to the states, MLS decided to get creative with a blind draw.
With the Chicago Fire and New England Revolution both chasing Jones, MLS decided that his home would be determined by a mechanism that doesn't exist in the rule book and had never been discussed before by league officials -- at least not publicly. Presumably, the draw that sent Jones to New England was the functional equivalent of a name being picked out of a hat, but even exactly how the process worked remains unclear.
And now, surprise!, the league has another flashpoint.
Inventing a new rule to determine where a United States international would go was never going to be a popular decision. And just to make things better, it came at the end of a months-long, very public courtship in which everyone wanted to see the deal done, but nobody could quite figure out how it would be accomplished.
Was Jones going to be subject to the allocation order? Or how about the secret DP allocation order, which Columbus Crew manager Gregg Berhalter said existed, but that the league will not comment on? Maybe Jones was at that "certain threshold" that made him immune to every other rule?
Instead, we got the blind draw. MLS had screwed up again. Or had it?
The problem is that there wasn't a good way for MLS to handle this. If they went by the rules, Jones would have been subject to the allocation order. What if the Crew, who had the top spot, were willing to pay Jones what he wanted, but Jones didn't want to play in Columbus? MLS would have had to pick siding with the rules and transparency over bringing an American World Cup hero into the league.
Of course, they could have used the DP allocation order, if it exists. But again, they would be allocating a player based on a previously unwritten rule.The league has been criticized before for pushing star players to certain teams and markets, so choosing that method was off the table, unless MLS wanted to take heat for favoritism, as it has done before.
So what exactly was MLS going to do? The league was always going to have to go down some dark alley to make this work. All they could do was choose which alley to go down. Such is the nature of single-entity.
MLS operates unlike any other major soccer league. Its component clubs are not individual businesses, but simply part of the larger MLS business. The league owns all player contracts and controls all league business, from TV deals, to jersey sponsorships, to player contracts. There is almost nothing any team can do without the approval of the league.
It's the single-entity structure which is the real villain in all of this. Single-entity backed MLS into a corner and left it no good way out, as it has done so many times before.
There was one obvious way to allocate Jones, and the one that leagues all around the world use -- letting the teams interested bid on him and then letting the player choose his home. But MLS couldn't do that. It would have violated the rules governing the single-entity system, thereby threatening the legality of its existence -- one where players sign with the league, not teams, and the clubs do not compete against each other financially. And as long as teams cannot compete against each other, leaving MLS to determine where players will go, there will be complications.
Jones was a big and high-profile complication. He was a World Cup star who made it abundantly clear he wanted to join the league. Both the Fire and Revolution also shouted from the rooftops that they wanted to sign him. With two teams involved and a player the fans wanted to see join the league, MLS had a bunch of bad options at their disposal. Rather than going with any of those, it made up a new option that was no more palatable than the others, but that was arguably more effective.
Jermaine Jones, Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
MLS has its issues, and it could do a lot to rectify some of them. Announcing when playoff tiebreakers change would be a start. Clarifying whether there is a DP allocation would also help. The list could go on and on, but not all of the problems have an easy solution. Some are an inescapable peril of single-entity.
For 20 years, single-entity has arguably kept the league alive. It has kept teams from overspending and forced them to exercise the financial discipline necessary for a league that was on the verge of collapse before, in a sport that saw previous American leagues go under because of an open checkbook. Even today, with the league stable and on the verge of unprecedented growth, single-entity gives MLS financial certainty that continues to lure investors and secures the future.
It's unlikely that MLS will always operate as a single-entity. At some point the restraints will prove too much and its drawbacks will begin to outweigh the benefits. The question is when? Blind draws or allocation are simply the ugly mechanisms necessary to make single-entity work, and these strange quirks of a strange league aren't going away until single-entity ends.
That time will come when the owners -- not MLS commissioner Don Garber or anyone in the league office -- decide that they're ready to take the shackles off themselves. They're the ones with real power, and the ones who can say it's time for MLS clubs to compete with each other and not hide in a dark room with limited goals and obtuse allocation rules.
A blind draw isn't any more ridiculous than a weighted lottery. It's not any more suspicious that the DP allocation order. It doesn't bring about any more questions than the league choosing which teams get which players. It's just another new way MLS does business.
And MLS will continue to do business this way. Under single-entity, it will keep finding itself in no-win situations and having to test the trust of the league's supporters, as well as challenging the minds of would-be fans with new rules to ensure the league can acquire as much talent as it can.
The only way out of this for MLS is to get out of the single-entity business, but the owners don't look set to do that anytime soon.