Double Deals: Altidore, Giovinco, and the MLS Transfer System

By: Chris Dagonas

In theory, MLS teams are competing against each other for American and International transfer targets, like in any other league. That’s the theory. In practice, there are some strings attached.

The MLS transfer market is not exactly a free market. Two recent Toronto FC acquisitions have opened up a fair amount of debate and criticism about the way the MLS, um, helps decide who goes where.

Quick aside: When I was in high school, I was super into sports video games on my family’s Windows 98 IBM desktop. The problem was, without reliable internet access, my team rosters were often wildly, frustratingly outdated. Triple Play 99, my baseball game of choice, offered the option to begin a new season with a fantasy draft (I’ve done no research on this, but I assume that was one of the world’s first). Up until about 2005, every now and then I’d pop that dusty CD in and see what the baseball world looked like in January 1998. Look at Seattle Alex Rodriguez!

Anyways, I’d invariably pick the Blue Jays as my user-controlled team, then randomize the draft order. I didn’t want to have first pick (that would seem cheesy), but I didn’t want to NOT be in the top ten. So I’d usually randomize until I fell into the sweet spot, somewhere around four or five. I’d have favourable position, but nothing overtly shady. That way, I’d get to choose Ken Griffey, Mike Mussina, or some other late-90’s era star.

What the hell does that story have to do with this story? I was the league commissioner, and I was deciding advantageous transaction positions for a preferred team.

"I'm going all the way to... Toronto?"

“I’m going all the way to… Toronto?”

First of all, it is crucial to understand that the MLS controls and owns a portion of each team. Many major contract decisions are made at league-level. Imagine if LeBron James were a free-agent, and the NBA manipulated salary and roster rules to put New York or Los Angeles in prime position to sign him. That is what some are accusing MLS commissioner Don Garber of doing.

Toronto FC just sold it’s top striker, Englishman Jermain Defoe, to Premier League cellar-dweller Sunderland in exchange for American forward Jozy Altidore. The US Men’s National Team player and former New York Red Bull is, according to MLS rules, required to go through the Allocation Process. Toronto FC and New York had both expressed an interest in signing Altidore. Toronto FC was higher on the Allocation list than New York, and no teams ahead of Toronto showed any interest, allegedly. Toronto got first dibs. That, coupled with the fact that they had sent a player to Sunderland in exchange for Altidore in the first place, seemed all above board. Fair is fair. Once a team uses its allocation ranking to sign a player, it drops to the bottom of the list. More information on that system here.

A couple of days later, Toronto FC announced another signing. That other signing, Italian winger/striker Sebastian Giovinco, has created a minor backlash among those who follow MLS contracts closely. MLS allocation rules are technically defined as applying only to USMNT players, so the Italian Giovinco would not be covered under that ruling. However, an asterisk points out that Designated Players “of a certain threshold – as determined by the league – are not subject to allocation ranking.” This means that Giovinco, despite which other teams might have expressed interest, must have been free to sign with any MLS team of his choosing, regardless of allocation list ranking. And he chose Toronto!

Is the MLS interested in bringing top players to only some markets? A cursory glance reveals that the majority of superstars have usually ended up on one of four teams; Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Sure, I guess you could argue that most smaller-market teams can’t afford that level of player, as they’re owned by family-run cheese companies and the like. But, shouldn’t the league try to spread the wealth more fairly, in order to ensure long-term stability and avoid a David vs. Goliath situation. Or, is it more important for the league to gain as much traction internationally as possible, by pairing big name players with big markets?

Another sketchy area of this episode is that Altidore was TFC’s third Designated Player, the maximum allowed by the league. Giovinco becomes the fourth, which means that Toronto FC must sell Brazilian forward Gilberto before their first game in early March. One question is whether a team should be allowed to go over the maximum at all. That is a rules and regulations question. The other question is whether it’s wise, from Toronto FC’s perspective, to put itself into a must-sell position on a player who had a pretty bad season in 2014. That is a management question. Both are worth asking.

The argument for the Giovinco signing goes: he’s 27 years young, he has game-changing speed and some crossing and free-kick ability. In terms of MLS attackers, he immediately becomes one of the league’s most talented.

The argument against the Giovinco signing goes: he’s 27 years old, he has never been able to stick on with Juventus, and he’s likely after a final big contract before he enters his 30s and loses his speed and quickness, two of his key attributes. Also, he won’t put on a TFC uniform until June, three months into the season.

Just why did Giovinco choose Toronto FC over other suitors, especially when, according to Yahoo Sports, he had drawn interest from teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, Fiorentina and Monaco? I’m sure we’d all like to think that he chose the Big Smoke over cities like Dallas and Salt Lake City because of our excellent Italian restaurants and the whole St. Clair Avenue or College Street “Little Italy” vibes.

"They're paying me how much??"

“They’re paying me how much??”

However, it might have more to do with the amount of cash MLSE was willing to throw at him. Giovinco will earn a hair over $7 million US per year, on a four-year contract. That puts him at a higher salary than Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, or any other American star. It also places him above international newcomers like Kaka, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and David Villa. Most recent MLS salary information can be found here.

Do I believe that the MLS is actively trying to put top players on big-market teams? I guess I could see how that strategy would be more financially successful than, say, parachuting Giovinco, Lampard or Gerrard into Kansas City or Portland for four seasons. Many ownership groups simply can not afford to pay big bucks for stars, and stars are needed to grow the league’s profile. So, yes, perhaps commissioner Garber is pulling some strings in order to ensure that big names can get paid big bucks, and it appears to be a short-term evil to ensure a long-term good.

On the other hand, should Toronto FC be paying $7 million dollars a year for Sebastian Giovinco, plus an estimated (MLS tends not to share details of its contracts) $3 million per annum for Altidore? Is that a wise investment that can ensure a long-awaited playoff berth for the Reds? Could that money have been spent more wisely, say, in an improved defensive line.

I’m through with the benefit of the doubt with this team. Show me Altidore scoring with some rhythm, Giovinco creating chaos in opponents’ boxes, and Bradley continuing his outstanding play. Show me a solid defense, and consistent, intelligent coaching.

If the MLS is really counting on Toronto as one of it’s high-profile cities, the Reds had better start playing like it, and fast, or else we might start to see those big names being signed by their rivals instead.

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