National Writer: Charles Boehm

MLS rosters: Plans advancing for “potentially increasing investment”

Columbus Crew vs Atlanta United

In the wake of Lionel Messi’s arrival at Inter Miami CF last summer, and the immediate dividends it reaped in the form of the Herons’ global fame and capture of the Leagues Cup trophy, widespread speculation erupted about the longer-term impact of the Argentine icon on how MLS and its clubs acquire talent and build rosters.

Perhaps, went the thinking, the combination of Messi and other superstars arriving, and the looming impact of the 2026 World Cup on North American soil, presented a rare opportunity. Could this be a chance for the league to ramp up its heretofore long history of measured, steady growth, to seize what appears to be an unprecedented moment for the sport here?

When the MLS Board of Governors met in December, a raft of new competition initiatives was approved for the upcoming season, including in-stadium Video Review announcements, a timed substitution measure and the "Off-Field Treatment Rule" to reduce stoppages for injuries in match play. Dramatic changes in roster budgets and player-acquisition mechanism rules, however, didn’t quite materialize.

Stay tuned.

Long view

Speaking to media in a virtual availability on Thursday, Executive VP of Player Strategy and Relations Todd Durbin hinted at an “ongoing strategic process” with the potential for a reshaping in those areas later in 2024, “with the anticipated deadline of us being able to present to the full ownership board in or around All-Star, at least our initial strategic conclusions, and to begin laying out those areas that we think we should be evolving, potentially increasing investment.”

The 2024 MLS All-Star Game is scheduled for July 24 at Field in Columbus, and the event typically also serves as a gathering point for a variety of league meetings and other functions. Any potential changes mooted there would, in most cases, be considered in the ensuing months and decided on at year’s end for implementation the following season.

MLS decision-makers tend to take a long-range view on such matters, mindful of the league’s early days and professional soccer’s mixed past in the United States.

“About 12 to 18 months ago, we were asked by the Commissioner and by the owners to take a step back and do a deep dive into every facet and every aspect of our business on the player side,” explained Durbin. “Then involving the Boston Consulting Group, they presented a big research project to us and that took place back around the All-Star Game 2023.

“We came out of that and began really digging into the way in which our rosters are constructed, the way in which we put our budgets together, and seeing where we are with regards to player quality and making sure that we are able to do everything we can to continue to drive the quality and continue year over year to get better and better.”

Homegrown boost

The veteran MLS executive also pointed to the ongoing rise of the academy pipeline as one of the league’s most important trends. Last season homegrown players as a whole set new records for goals scored, minutes played and games played; the latter stat line has nearly doubled over the past five years.

“The quality of the domestic player is going to be and always will be fundamental to the overall quality of the league,” noted Durbin, a key architect in a range of competitive operations dating back more than two decades. “Therefore it's incredibly important that we continue to invest in those players.”

Some 20% of those who took the field in MLS in 2023 were homegrowns, and a steady stream of them have moved on to earn hefty outbound transfers to clubs abroad, highlighted by the likes of Ricardo Pepi and Gaga Slonina reaping eight-figure transfer fees in Europe – even with increased spending in other roster areas.

“When we first launched the TAM [Targeted Allocation Money] initiative, and we knew that we were going to be putting a significant amount of money into the roster, there was a lot of concern that the upshot of that was going to be that it was going to marginalize the young player,” said Durbin. “So we had been monitoring that and are acutely aware to make sure that we were in a position to make sure that we continue to grow and develop players.

“And what you've seen actually is not only the benefit of those players to the first team and the quality of the on-field product, but you've also seen the trickle-down effect and the benefit to those players that are in the development pipeline. Because as the first teams get better, that raises the standard. It puts more demand on the quality of the young players, for them to improve and meet a higher standard. And that group of players has obviously more than achieved that.”

Going international

Durbin also pointed to a youthful trend in the international transfer market as most MLS clubs grow more aggressive in that department.

“It's absolutely critical that we are in that space,” he said. “‘23 was a transformational year. We had 90 players that we brought in that were acquired with transfer fees; 25 of those were part of the U22 Initiative … and continuing to throw and cast a very wide net in terms of not only the age of the players, but also the leagues and the geographic areas from which they are coming. So we're always looking across the globe, and scouting for where we can find the best players in the best place to deploy our resources.

“During this [current] transfer window, we've already brought in players representing 35 different countries. The average age of players we're bringing in continues to decline: This year, at least at this point in time, we're just a tick above 24 [years old].”

New rules

Durbin’s colleagues Ali Curtis and Nelson Rodriguez also spoke to media on Thursday, delving into the backstory of the aforementioned new competition initiatives coming into effect.

Starting in 2024, spectators in MLS stadiums will be able to track added time on the scoreboards just like those watching at home via MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. Both audiences will hear directly from mic’ed-up referees about their decision-making process on Video Review calls, much like what has been the norm in the NFL for many years. Also, a couple of innovations first tested in MLS NEXT Pro to reduce dead time in matches will arrive in the top flight: timed substitutions and moving most injury treatments off the field of play.

“MLS has always been eager to see how we can contribute to pushing the game forward. We were heavily involved in the VAR testing before it was allowed and adopted, and if not first, we were one of the first leagues in the world to adopt it,” said Rodriguez, the league’s Executive Vice President of Sporting Product & Competition.

“I would say unapologetically, I think we've adopted it in the best way. And so when IFAB offers trials, we routinely submit applications to be a trial, and such is the case with VAR announcements. This is very common in North American sports. It's a little bit of a source of frustration for us that sometimes we are slowed by the convention of this sport,” he added, “but this is just in line with what our fans are used to, whether it's the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or MLB.”