Photo credit: Alex Menendez/Getty

The raw facts of the transfer of Orlando City’s Cyle Larin to Beşiktaş in Turkey were bizarre enough in their own right that you’d have to go to some lengths to avoid noticing that they pointed up one of the most obvious aspects of American soccer, which is somehow puzzlingly controversial when stated plainly: Something is rotten in MLS. And yet it’s only by digging into the specifics here, as you can by reading this ESPN FC report, that you really come to understand how this saga exposes the league and its dumb and made-up rules for being as laughably fraudulent as they truly are.

Larin, by any measure, should’ve been one of the stars of MLS. He’s a 22-year-old Canadian who averaged just about a goal every other game in his three impressive seasons in Orlando, and whose future looks extremely bright. Why, then, did this potential star feel so mistreated by the team and league where he made his name that he abandoned them, flew to Turkey, started training, and soon thereafter signed a contract with Beşiktaş, all while allegedly still being under contract with MLS, in an effort to force his way out of the league by any means necessary? To understand that, we need to go to the beginning.

As the number one pick in the 2015 MLS Superdraft, big things were expected of Larin right away. And he paid off those expectations, too, scoring an MLS rookie record 17 goals in his first season with Orlando, winning the Rookie of the Year award along the way. His followup season in 2016 was similarly impressive, as he led the team in scoring with 14 goals in 32 matches.

It was right around then when the problems began to arise. Presumably all these goals of Larin’s would’ve inspired Orlando to lock him down with a fat new contract. Larin and his people believed that this would make sense, and yet no extension came. Coming off his second season, Larin was making just $200,000 a year.

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Orlando might not have valued Larin very much, but other clubs from Europe certainly did. When this interest became evident, Larin decided he wanted to move, probably to a league and a new salary that better reflected his abilities. Orlando, however, had no intention of letting him go. Why would the team simultaneously not want to give a valuable player a new contract while also not wanting to sell him on for a profit? Because MLS is dumb, of course.

Apparently, MLS protocol mandates that the league takes a cut of every team’s transfer fee. The league’s percentage can vary anywhere from 30 percent to a full 50 percent, depending on how long the player has been in MLS. This cut is then divvied up between the other MLS teams, due to the league’s single-entity status. (As we already know thanks to things like franchise fees for expansion teams, MLS loves nothing more than to invent income streams for its various owners outside the traditional ones.)

Clearly, this rule creates enormous potential conflicts of interest—between players and management, between a coach and his team’s ownership, between owners of different teams, between the league and a team, etc. The Larin situation is an example of one such conflict. Orlando were fine selling Larin, but didn’t want to do it any time before 2018, because that’s when their chunk of any transfer would’ve increased from 50 percent to 67 percent.

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Thus you had a situation where Larin wanted a better contract and/or a transfer; where Orlando didn’t want to give him a bigger contract because they probably planned on selling him onsoon but not before MLS’s famously byzantine rules allowed them to maximize their share of his transfer fee; and where his European suitors who wanted pay him and his club something close to what he was worth couldn’t save him from his shitty station in life for no good reason. A perfect recipe for a disastrous relationship.

MLS’s nonsensical transfer fee partitioning rule isn’t the only dumb one at play here. The other rule was so stupid that MLS was afraid it would be outlawed by FIFA, and so they caved and let Larin go. (Consider that; MLS has rules so bad they present FIFA as a credible agent of justice.) The reason why Larin felt emboldened to ditch out on Orlando this offseason and go sign a deal with Beşiktaş as if he were out of a contract is because he believed he was out of a contract. Specifically, the last guaranteed year of Larin’s deal with Orlando was 2017. After that, his contract included a team option that would allow Orlando to extend the deal unilaterally by another two seasons. These kinds of team options are a common feature of contracts in American sports; FIFA, though, has ruled against the validity of them.

Larin, then, in effect called MLS’s bluff. As had Camila Sanvezzo before him, Larin figured that if he simply disregarded the possibly illegal team options in his contract, he could sign with any club of his choosing right now without dealing with Orlando at all. Meanwhile, Orlando and MLS obviously had a vested interest in defending themselves and their contracts against this kind of action by players. So while MLS made a show of being prepared to go to court to enforce their player contract system, they ultimately decided against taking the case there and came to an agreement with Beşiktaş: the Turkish club would pay Orlando a low-ball pseudo-transfer fee, and Orlando and MLS would call it a day. MLS’s willingness to deal here probably stemmed in large part from the league’s fear of what it would mean for a league that largely relies on team options to have those options immediately invalidated. After all, criminals know better than to call the police when a rival comes in and steals all their drug money.

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Even with all of that, though, there’s still more to the controversy, this time between MLS’s front office and its constituent teams. After MLS accepted Beşiktaş’s below-market-value fee for Larin—a solution that itself seems like an ersatz victory for Orlando and MLS, since, when a player makes a mockery of a contract by simply wadding it up and tossing it into the trash before signing a new one elsewhere, you wouldn’t imagine the aggrieved party would resolve the issue so amicably—MLS decided to pay off Orlando by letting the team take 100 percent of Beşiktaş’s money for the solid the team did the league by not insisting on going to FIFA to challenge Larin’s breaking of his contract.

This has apparently bothered the other teams around the league, and for good reason. Why should Orlando get to keep all the transfer money in this situation when the league’s rules clearly state that everyone is supposed to wet their beaks when a transfer comes through? Sure, the teams must’ve appreciated the existential risk any potential Larin FIFA case would portend, but when dealing with a venal bunch like MLS, it’s unsurprising the thing they’re most worried about is the few thousand dollars they each stood to make from Larin’s transfer. For MLS’s part, while this move of giving Orlando all of Larin’s transfer fee does go against one of the league’s rules, the ESPN FC article makes sure to point out MLS’s most treasured bylaw, which absolves them of any and all accountability:

The roster rules MLS sends out to its teams open with a statement that says the league reserves the right to change or modify those rules at any time in its “absolute and sole discretion.”

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This entire scenario is borne of MLS’s moronic rules, which follow neither logic nor the sport’s own well-established best practices. Their own rules are what incentivized Orlando both to not pay Larin the money he was worth and to not sell him until they could wring every possible cent out of his eventual transfer. Their own rules, and their potential invalidity, are what then incentivized Larin to decide on his own volition that his “contract” with Orlando wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on and to disregard it entirely, with the support of a much more established and well-vetted entity in Beşiktaş. These same self-evidently dumb rules are also what led MLS to settle with Beşiktaş for some nominal sum, and to give all of it to Orlando, in an effort to prevent FIFA’s prying eyes from scrutinizing the league’s spit-and-glue foundation too intently. And MLS’s blatant flouting of their own rules is what now has its own members mad at it.

But hey, Orlando seems happy to accept the couple million dollars they don’t have to share in exchange for their highly coveted 22-year-old striker, and MLS is glad FIFA hasn’t (yet) investigated its probably indefensible team option clauses, and the greedy owners will soon have a new pot of gold to reach their hands into once the impending round of league expansion brings in those huge franchise fees. Everyone gets their money in the end of the day, and money is all that really matters in this league anyway.

[ESPN FC]