Lucho (Not) Libre
In probably the best news of the week – other than the cancellation of Dr. Seuss (always hated that guy) – The FC has finally, reportedly, for real, closed the deal on Luciano Federico Acosta, aka “Lucho” aka (per my autocorrect) “Lucky.” Finally, our lord and savior Gerard Nijkamp landed us our long-coveted “10” – who will wear a number other than 10 – and we are on our way to fulfilling our MLS promise, just in time for the West End Stadium. Time to sit back and enjoy the ---
Ah, there it is. As the afterglow of Lucho’s impending signing wore off, an increasing voice of discontent arose among FC’s supporters: We gave up too much.
You know what? Good.
Don’t get me wrong, I personally don’t want the FC to use all of its “MLS mechanisms” (a catch-all term for “the only thing my wife is more tired of hearing about than Sons of Anarchy”) unwisely, or squander resources in a way that hurts the ability to round out the rest of the roster. But I do think it’s important that FC fans have something to gripe about.
We break the bank on Brenner, by all accounts a rising star in the Brazilian league? “But there’s no one to give him service!”
We sign Ronald Matarrita, one of the best left backs in the league, and one with the elusive skill of “can pass the ball laterally to a teammate in the box”? “We gave up too much GAM!”
We sign a MLS Best XI attacking midfielder, who very nearly signed with Paris St. Germaine less than two years ago (reportedly, although not sure if it’s been confirmed by The Athletic)? “…” Well, same complaint as Matarrita really.
It’s the caveats that help us build that anxiety, to avoid getting that unsettling feeling of complacency. Cincinnatians don’t trust that feeling – if we’re not plagued by doubt, then we might do something crazy like enjoy ourselves.
So it’s actually good that FC paid too much for Lucho Acosta. In fact, I wish they’d paid more.
Fortunately, MLS mechanisms give us all kinds of opportunities to complain. A quick rundown:
Designated Player Rule
The Designated Player Rule was adopted so that LA Galaxy could sign David Beckham, and it allows teams to pay as much as they want to up to three players, plus transfer fees, while limiting their salary cap hit to the maximum budget charge (which is the same as the maximum salary you can pay someone without using some MLS mechanism). For instance, FC can pay Jurgen Locadia Premier League money and he only counts $612,500 against the salary cap. The idea is to allow teams to break the bank on a couple of studs – almost always attacking players.
So what’s to complain about here? Well, technically any player making more than $612,500 can be made a designated player. Cheap teams (or, say, expansion teams finding their sea legs) can find a couple of $800,000 players, DP them (heh heh), and then claim to their fans that they have three DPs.
In fact, this is exactly what FC did last year! Both Yuya Kubo and Allan Cruz were labeled “designated players,” but neither of them needed that status, because of TAM. Which brings us to…
TAM and GAM
TAM and GAM are both kinds of “allocation money,” which is a fun accounting trick that single-entity MLS uses to account for certain kinds of transfers. “GAM” is “general allocation money” and can be used in a number of ways, such as “buying down” a player’s salary to give that player less of a salary cap hit, accounting for acquisition fees, and trading to another team for players or other assets (we will get to that later). “TAM” stands for targeted allocation money, and one of its benefits is that it can be used to “buy down” a Designated Player’s contract so that that player no longer needs to be, uh, “designated.” But you can only use about a million dollars in TAM to do that, so basically a player making about a million more than the maximum charge can be bought down, but any playing making more than that (including any transfer fees, averaged over the length of the contract) can only be a DP.
A great example of how TAM can be used is how Inter Miami signed Blaise Matuidi. You see, he had recently played for Juventus and was a World Cup winner, and when that signing was announced everybody assumed that he was a Designated Player. But apparently the lure of living in Miami was enough to get him to accept a TAM-level contract. Because of TAM, Miami was able to sign a player of incredibly high quality and still have room for three more studs.
Take the paragraph above and, uh, replace “Blaise Matuidi” with “Federico Higuain” and replace “Juventus” with “DC United.” And replace “World” with “MLS.”
So, what’s there to complain about with TAM and GAM? First of all, it’s confusing. Second of all, some people think you should use it only for player salaries and not (like FC did with Lucho and Matarrita) to trade for players. Third, it’s confusing.
Young Designated Player
This is like the Designated Player rule, but it’s a carve-out for players under 23. With YDP status, the player’s budget charge is only $150,000. This is Brenner – even though he costs FC $13 million plus his salary, he only counts $150,000 against the salary cap.
What’s to complain about here? Like clockwork, every high-profile YDP signing will be put side-by-side with two players, Ezequiel Barco and Brian Rodriguez. Both of those players were signed for near-record money by their respective teams. Both players were linked to other, higher profile leagues. And both players, so far, have been massive disappointments.
So there’s a ready-made complaint about any YDP signing your team makes, no matter how ambitious – “Eh, could just be another Barco.”
MLS rights are the real villain here. Under MLS rules, in certain situations a team can retain a player’s “rights” even if that player is no longer under contract and playing in another country. DC United had Lucho Acosta’s rights because he used to play with them and they made him a “qualifying offer,” so FC had to deal with DC if they wanted LA (that stands for Lucho Acosta).
DC gets free money. FC gets screwed.
What’s to complain about here? A lot, honestly. Wouldn’t you think it was pretty screwed up if your employer could keep you from working somewhere else, even though you didn’t want to work there anymore? (What? Ah crap.) But it’s not like this rule was a secret, and I hope FC had someone check the rulebook before it wrote $150 million checks for an MLS fee and a stadium.
The Allocation List is even dumber. Certain players (high-dollar transfers outside the league, certain USMNT players) are placed on the Allocation List, and MLS puts the team in order on who gets to claim dibs if that player wants to come to MLS. Effectively, this becomes just a way for, say, Austin FC to squeeze some TAM or GAM out of anyone who wants to sign, say, Matt Miazga.
So what’s to complain about? Again, a lot! (Especially if you’re Jermaine Jones and you were eying property in LA.) You can complain when some team fleeces you for some allocation money when you’re signing a player, sure. The Big Brain way to complain is when your team has the top allocation spot for most of the season and fails to fleece anyone else. So it’s the best kind of scenario, a lose-lose – the Kobayashi Maru.
But the Galaxy Brain way to complain about the Allocation List is when your team wants to sign someone on the Allocation List, but your team is still in USL and the rules technically shouldn’t even apply, but MLS says no anyway, even though you’ve already been awarded the MLS bid and Fabian Johnson has always wanted to see the German street signs by Findlay Market and go to a real Hofbrauhaus.
Do you want to get real mad? Learn about Discovery Rights, the lowest form of “dibs” yet. With “Discovery Rights,” MLS teams can decide that they saw a player first and then squeeze out some cash on the back end.
Last year, Montreal paid New England $150,000 in GAM for the discovery rights to Victor Wanyama. Because I guess Bruce Arena was the only guy who saw that goal against Liverpool.
It is a virtual certainty, a safer bet than Nashville and Crew fans showing up in any Twitter thread about the FC, that an MLS team has the “discovery rights” to Patrice Mbappe, and there’s nothing he can do about it. And I guarantee it ain’t Miami.
This year, MLS debuts the new “U-22 Rule,” which allows MLS teams to pay an unlimited amount of transfer fees for players 22 or younger. Then, as long as that player does not earn more than the maximum budget charge, the team can keep that player on a very low budget charge ($150,000 or $200,000) for the next five seasons. The idea is to incentive teams to bring rising stars into the league, develop them a little, and then sell them abroad for big fat stacks.
What’s to complain about here?
Nothing, really. I mean sure, a young player might not pan out, but that’s just the risk you take. You want your team to take those risks, and the reduced budget charge limits the downside.
But, if you want to complain, uh, how about this – Homegrown players and draftees can also qualify under the rule, which gives your team an out to fill all three U-22 slots without actually investing any money.
As a bonus, there are indications that FC might do this with Frankie Amaya.
So Do We Hate These or What?
Yes, MLS has a lot of very stupid rules. But so does America, and we love it anyway.
Other countries let teams pay as much for players as they want? Well, other countries have universal healthcare, higher labor force participation, and presidents who can tell the difference between their wife and their sister. America’s always been different, so embrace it.
How Am I Supposed to Feel About Lucho?
Embrace the contradictions. Simultaneously profess that he is our perfect 10, the key to unlocking Brenner and winning the next three Supporters’ Shields, and also that we paid too much for him and we need to be better at using our GAM. Bask in the former, wallow in the latter.
That’s the Cincinnati Way. That’s chili on spaghetti. That’s perfection