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New MLS Roster Rules and How Sporting KC are Impacted

There are new rules coming to Major League Soccer. Several of them. Let’s look at how Sporting Kansas City will be impacted.



Credit: Thad Bell

If you are a follower of Major League Soccer and Sporting Kansas City, you likely have at least a glimpse into how complicated the roster rules are. Designated Players. TAM. GAM. U-22 Initiative. Discovery Rights. Allocation Order (RIP). Re-Entry Draft stages one and two.

That’s just a sampling of the nonsense you have to understand to put your head around if your team has room to make a signing. You have to be an MLS sicko to even begin to understand, and even then, the rules change so often, it’s hard to keep track. That brings us to the summer of 2024. Yes, the rules are reportedly about to change midseason. Peak MLS.

Due to some fantastic reporting by Paul Tenorio and The Athletic, we have an idea of what the upcoming rule changes will be. Let’s take a look at each change and think through what sort of impact it will or could have on Sporting KC this year and beyond.

Rule 1: Uncoupling of DP and U-22 Slots

First, some quick definitions. Designated Players (DP) come in two forms. We’ll call them true DPs and DP in-name-only.

To be a true DP, a player must either be paid more than $1,683,750 (in 2024) or have a salary and a pro-rated transfer fee plus salary that puts them over that threshold. The spend is limitless, like Messi. A player can also be a DP if they make between $683,750 and $1 million more than that, but that’s a DP in-name-only. Teams can use Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) or General Allocation Money (GAM) to buy down the budget charge.

Confused yet? Let’s keep going.

U-22 Initiative players can make up to the salary max budget charge ($683,750 in 2024) and have an unlimited amount of money spent on them via transfer fees. Also, they only count for between $150,000 and $200,000 against the salary budget.

Insane and unessential reading: 2024 MLS Roster Rules

The change that is rumored and has seemingly been confirmed by multiple coaches and Chief Soccer Officers (Vermes hinted at this over a month ago), is around how DPs and U-22 players work together. Currently, if you have three true DPs (above that ~$1.68m number), you can only have one U-22 player. If you have two or less true DPs, you can have up to three U-22 players. Or if one of your three DPs is a Young Designated Player (don’t get me started).

[Update 5/20/2024: The wording of the rumored rule change is a little confusing and I’ve updated this to account for it. It sounds like the new rule doesn’t care if your DPs are “true” or “in-name-only.” If you have 3 DPs, you get 3 U-22s, if you have 2 DPs, you get 4 U-22s and $2 million in GAM.]

The new rule would allow a team to have three DPs and three U-22 players. However, if a team chose to have two or less DPs, they get rewarded with a 4th U-22 slot and $2 million in extra GAM (just $1m this year since it’s coming in midseason).

What is General Allocation Money? Really quick; GAM is basically fake money that each team gets to buy down the budget charge of anyone on their roster to fit more signings into their budget. They can buy down a players charge to as little as $150,000 against their budget. Meaning even a DP that counts for $683,750 by default, a team can spend GAM on that player to make them cost less against the $5,470,000 (in 2024) salary budget. Not a cap, but a budget. Teams get $2,585,000 in GAM by default in 2024 and can get more through various mechanisms, including trades and transfers. More on transfers in rule three.

Rule 1: What Does this Mean for Sporting KC?

Right now, only four MLS teams have used all three true DP spots filled: Nashville SC, New England Revolution, Orlando City and FC Cincinnati. That’s right, Inter Miami CF aren’t on the list as only Messi and Sergio Busquets are actually true DPs, everyone else is (allegedly) getting paid under the ~$1.68m figure. Luiz Suarez. Jordi Alba. All of them.

Obviously, that means Sporting KC are in bucket two. Here is their roster situation:

  • True DP: Alan Pulido
  • DPs in-name-only: Daniel Salloi, Nemanja Radoja
  • U-22 players: Logan Ndenbe, Robert Voloder, Marinos Tzionis

Erik Thommy was a DP last year but is somehow not this year. We’ll know more about that when the spring salary release happens from the MLSPA, which frankly could come in the next few days or weeks.

If you take the new rules and combine them with last known flexibility this team had, they can really take some big swings as early as this summer. They could potentially sign two more true DPs (think, unlimited transfer fees and salaries), though they may not have enough to buy down both DPs. Or they could sign a single true DP (which they already could) and have an open U-22 slot and $1 million in GAM to sign even more players, on top of the money they have on hand from making Radoja and Salloi DPs for half a season.

There are a couple limiting factors. First, they only have two open senior roster spots. Without diving further into the weeds, teams get 20 senior spots and 10 other roster spots that are mostly for lower paid players, Homegrown players and the like. According to Sporting KC’s release at the start of 2024, they have 18 of the 20 senior spots filled.

To sign more than two players (a true DP, U-22 and someone with that leftover GAM), someone has to go. They can do a buyout (more on a rule change around that below), trade, transfer or place a player on the Season-Ending Injury (SEI) list.

Let’s say they clear up that third spot and decide to stay in the second bucket (2 DPs/4 U-22 players). That brings us to the second limiting factor. Will the owners spend the money? Recent history says yes, but a longer look at history says no. Let me explain.

Up until the signings of Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda, rumored to have fees of $8 million and $4 million per Mike Illig in the KC Star last year, the team had never spent more than $4 million total in its entire history of transfer fees. Since then, it’s spent a few million more for Ndenbe, Voloder and Tzionis.

So, who could they sign? Literally anyone with that first DP spot. Is Antoinne Griezmann available? I’m (mostly) kidding, but they could make a move like that if the player wanted to come, and ownership wanted to spend. On the lower end, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like Gadi Kinda back? He’s not coming, but someone like him easily could. The sky is the limit. Dream big!

The other two spots are more restrictive. For a U-22 player, the player needs to be willing to play for under $683,750 and be under 22 (it’s right in the name). There are plenty of busts in the U-22 role. Tzionis sure looks like he’s going to fall in that category after the team spent more than $1.5m to acquire him and more than $600k in salary each year and he hasn’t played a second in 2024 as of this writing.

However, there are success stories around the league. Sporting KC fans will remember LA Galaxy striker Dejan Joveljić. Now in his fourth season in LA, he’s scored 25 goals and added 11 assists, including two in the 3-2 come-from-behind-win against SKC. All while just becoming a regular starter this year.

How about that hypothetical third spot that could be freed up? $1 million will buy a lot of good players (edit: they may not have a full $1m depending how much GAM/TAM is on hand to buy down Salloi/Radoja).

If we look back at the last known Sporting KC salaries from the end of 2023, only three players made more than $1m: Pulido, Daniel Salloi and Erik Thommy. We don’t know the 2024 numbers, but imagine another player the caliber of Johnny Russell, Remi Walter, Nemanja Radoja, Dany Rosero and on and on. $1m can buy a lot in MLS. Not to mention, it could be spread across multiple players in futures years, and it’ll be $2m in 2025!

So, Griezmann, a Joveljić clone and another Remi Walter? Yeah, I think that’d make this team better!

Rule 2: Two buyouts per season

It’s about to get a lot less sexy, especially for Sporting KC fans. But for fans of other teams with owners willing to spend endlessly, this could be huge. If you made a bad signing you can throw money at it to make it go away and free up that space in the salary budget.

The old rule was teams got one buyout per season. Before 2023, that buyout had to be executed before the start of the season. Now teams have until the secondary transfer window opens in the summer. The new rule is simple: you get two buyouts.

So, what is a buyout? Basically, the owner agrees to pay the player all the salary they would have received over the remaining year(s) of their contract to go away. I’m sure there are situations where a player takes less because they want to leave, but they could theoretically get their entire salary.

If you are a big spending MLS club who made a massive mistake. You can spend your way out. Think of how awful Lorenzo Insigne was in 2023. His guaranteed compensation to play for Toronto FC was $15.4 million. They could pay him whatever his 2024 salary is (that or more, surely), plus any years left and they could have his spot back. Instead, they fired Bob Bradley.

Or the Chicago Fire. They paid Xherdan Shaqiri $8,153,000 in guaranteed compensation and he’s been sort of bad. He’s only signed through this season, so for the remaining many million dollars, they can get out of that mistake. Anyone in the league can be bought out if ownership is willing to pay.

Now, buying out a DP is relatively rare. It has happened. Look back to the 2019 LA Galaxy. They had brought in Zlatan Ibrahimovic the prior summer, but his deal escalated to a DP deal in 2019. That meant they had four DPs, one more than what was allowed. Many, including myself, thought MLS would bend the rules for LA as they had in the past. Instead, they had to spend more than $6 million to clear Giovani dos Santos from their books. Now a team willing to spend like that could do it twice!

It’s far more likely it’ll be used on mid to lower-level guys on the senior roster to make room for bigger moves. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a rash of them this summer to make room for new DPs, U-22 signings or teams wanting to spend that extra million in GAM (rule one above).

Rule 2: Sporting KC and Buyouts

Frankly, I doubt this greatly impacts Sporting KC. It may have mildly helped in 2023. If you will recall, the team bought out Uri Rosell and his $500,000 salary, slightly offset by whatever the LA Galaxy paid him when they signed him. After that, they also cut Ben Sweat and his $250,000 salary. Again, he signed with the New England Revolution, likely for the minimum. They would have saved another $100,000+ in budget space if the second buyout existed.

Nothing life changing, but it may be enough to push a signing over the line. This year, there are some obvious candidates for buyouts. The aforementioned Tzionis would free up yet another U-22 spot and a senior roster spot and he’s yet to play. Zorhan Bassong will be surplus at left back after Ndenbe returns from injury. Then there is a smattering of other guys who don’t get on the field much.

However, focus on the senior roster because the last 10 guys already don’t count against the budget. The only other players from the senior roster to not play are Khiry Shelton and John Pulskamp. I can’t see Pulskamp going anywhere.

Rule 3: GAM from Transfer Fees

As the rules stand now, MLS teams can collect up to $1,215,506 (in 2024) in General Allocation Money from the transfer of a player outside of MLS. That’s an unlimited number of players. If a team like the Philadelphia Union make four biggish sales, they get up to $1.2m per sale. Two players would be $2.4, three would be $3.6 and so on.

The new rule would allow teams to convert up to a maximum of $3 million in GAM total, but it can all come from one player. If a team only makes one sale, and it’s a big one, they can make all $3m right then and there. However, if a team like Philly or FC Dallas make the three sales laid out above for what would have been a max of $3.6m, it’ll be capped at $3m now.

How ever you slice it, $3m in GAM is a ton of money to use on your roster. And you can get it every year if you are selling a player or players. Remember the base amount of GAM is just $2,585,000. You can more than double that spend with smart sales. It really incentivizes teams to develop talent and make sales year after year.

Rule 3: Sporting KC and Player Sales

Here is where Sporting KC basically wouldn’t benefit at all. They don’t sell players. Back in 2021 they famously sold Gianluca Busio for $6m with escalators up to $10.5m. That would have netted them nearly an extra $2m in GAM to improve the roster if this rule existed at that time.

Since that day, they’ve made no sales that would benefit them with extra GAM. However, they’d be dumb not to start looking to make more sales going forward because an extra $3m per season to spend on your roster is massive.

It would encourage the team to sign U-22 players and move them on. It would encourage them to develop Homegrown players and move them on. If they don’t start doing this, it has the potential to see Sporting KC falling behind in the league. It would be a real problem.

As for who could be sold, there are a few fringe candidates right now. Jake Davis and Logan Ndenbe stand out, but fullbacks don’t often go for massive fees and Davis is out of contract at the end of the season. Robert Voloder showed promise in his starts, but SKC spent a little weird with their U-22 spots. They seemingly spent to get future starters, instead of contributors they could sell on.

A quick aside on Jake Davis. It’s a shame that fourth U-22 slot didn’t exist earlier. They could have used it to re-sign Davis under that initiative and keep him around and give him his deserved pay raise. That said, a reading of the rule just says you can’t turn 23 the year the deal is signed, and he turned 22 this year. Maybe they should just use the last U-22 spot on him.

A Change that Didn’t Happen… Yet

Another rule was rumored that didn’t come to pass. The Icon Rule. Or what may be known as the Carlos Vela rule if it’s eventually adopted. This would be a mechanism to sign a player that is 33 or older who has played for a team for at least four years. Players would be allowed to be signed up to $1m above the salary budget max (no more than $1,683,750 in 2024) but only count against the cap as a $200,000 hit. It’s a way to reward a club legend, without hamstringing your entire budget and giving up a DP spot.

As for how Sporting KC could be impacted, I’m sure Peter Vermes was salivating at this rule. He loves his veteran players, and some would argue a few have stayed past their expiration date. This could be used on someone more expensive, like Johnny Russell and his $1m salary. Or even on someone cheaper, like Andreu Fontas who’s $450,000 salary would drop to a $200k hit.

If we use the Russell example, that’s $800,000 of extra budget space. That’s nearly another Remi Walter. It’s an interesting proposal that didn’t come up for a vote and could end up in front of owners this fall. Many CSOs think the rules may change yet again after the season to capitalize on Messi being in the league. Time will tell.

How do you think Sporting KC should spend this new money? Join the conversation in the comments.

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