Traversing MLS’s ever-shifting labyrinth of player transaction rules has always been nigh-impossible. And somehow or other, now the league has sprouted yet another alleyway to get lost in. Luckily, no matter how winding the path is, you always wind up in the same place: whatever’s best for the big-city teams.

The newest addition to the maze is what is called Transfer Allocation Money. The language reads like it was written by a Scientologist fully cognating her inner thetan, so I’ll give you a quick summation and we can get into what it means later. It’s basically a new kind of Allocation Money given to every team that creates a mid-tier salary level between the capped number and the Designated Player threshold.

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Now here is a fuller explanation, from the website of La Real Sociedad de España, El Lago Salado División:

Major League Soccer today announced that each MLS club will receive $100,000 per year for the next five years ($500,000 total) in additional funds to invest in their roster outside of the player salary budget.

[...]

Similar to general Allocation Money, Targeted Allocation Money may be used to sign new or re-sign existing players. In addition, Targeted Allocation Money may be traded.

Unlike general Allocation Money, which may be used to sign players earning any amount, Targeted Allocation Money may only be used to sign or re-sign players who earn more than the maximum salary budget charge (but who are not Designated Players). In 2015, the maximum salary budget charge amount is $436,250.

Importantly, unlike Designated Players for which a club is responsible for any payments above the maximum salary budget charge, all clubs will be provided the same amount of Targeted Allocation Money through the League budget. As a result, all clubs will have the same opportunity to benefit from these new funds.

Like I said, almost impenetrable. Still, I think I have some sort of grasp on it. Basically, the league will provide every team with $100,000 in Allocation Money (money the league gives every team) with which to sign a player whose contract is more than the salary cap max but less than the Designated Player level. As it currently stands, each individual team with DPs has to pay every dollar above the cap number out of their own pocket. With TAM, every team can use that essentially free money (though remember that since the league owns each individual team, they’re all paying part of that TAM anyway) on players above the cap.

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Sounds like this will be good for teams in smaller cities who maybe don’t have an owner willing to reach into his pocket and dig out the kind of huge sums teams like NYCFC do on the reg, right? Well, let’s keep reading. The Real Salt Lake article goes on to mention that, while this money is technically handed out in $100,000 per year increments, it can actually all be called at once to be used on up to three players. (I don’t really know what that means, but whatever.) It then gets to the rule’s practical application:

Additionally, going forward clubs may use a portion or all of their allotted Targeted Allocation Money to convert a Designated Player to a non-Designated Player by buying down, on a prorated basis, his salary budget charge to at or below the maximum salary budget charge. If Targeted Allocation Money is used to free up a Designated Player slot, the club must simultaneously sign a new Designated Player at an investment equal to or greater than the player he is replacing.

Ah-ha! This is really about those coveted DP spots. Every team is allowed two DPs, and can get a third by various methods. (Or so I think; my brain is already nearly fried reading all this mambo jahambo that I don’t want to keep going back to it at the risk of permanent mental incapacity.) However, there’s a huge difference in how the DP provision is used from team to team. The Montreal Impact have only one DP, whom they pay less than $500,000, while NYCFC pay each of their three more than most teams pay their entire rosters. It’s not exactly clear that the smaller teams are just itching to throw around a bunch more money when they don’t do so already on players that could actually make a difference.

What is clear, though, is that the big boys want as many high-paid stars as they can get their hands on. Recall, for example, the story of about a week ago, that MLS was in negotiations to bring Mexico internationals Giovani dos Santos and Javier Hernández back to North America. The story broke when ESPN’s Taylor Twellman reported that the league was trying to determine what “mechanism” to invent/use to make it happen. Since the new CBA did not create a fourth DP spot, that method was out.

One theory around that time was that the league would create a new Core Player designation, which would allow a team like the Galaxy to wave their magic MLS cap wands over the salary of a relatively low-earning DP like Omar Gonzalez until it was no longer in the DP range. While not exactly using the Core Player language (which that Yahoo article said was more a proposition for next season, anyway), this TAM provision is basically identical.

So there you have it. The big teams can now use a sort of mini-DP provision to pay good players they don’t think are worth crazy Pirlo salaries, protecting those real DP spots for the crazy Pirlo salaries. The amount each team can use varies, and it is a tradeable asset, so theoretically a team like the Galaxy could amass a huge swath of money with which to pay a nominally “mini-DP” something approximating those crazy Pirlo salaries. It’s basically creating another (and quite possibly even multiple!) DP spot(s) without calling it that directly.

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None of which is necessarily bad, by the way. Soccer at its highest level is naturally a haves-and-have-nots game; that MLS continues to drift that way isn’t in itself a problem. What is a problem is the league not owning up to this and committing to it fully. This still won’t allow NYCFC to go and buy whomever they think will guarantee them titles for the next five years the way they can with parent club Manchester City; will most likely be used to enlist another handful of former greats to plod around the Midwest for a couple years, rather than effect the kind of radical change that could make a league in America rival any other; and does nothing to alter the incentives that have kept MLS as a mediocre league of mediocre teams, with a few exceptions in both directions here and there.

Instead, this protects the status quo. The Targeted Allocation Money might allow MLS’s best team to add another guy who could no longer hack it in Europe. That’s fine. I’d just rather watch Villarreal and whomever they choose to fill that guy’s shoes.

Photo via Getty

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