Could the NBA-style transfer system of MLS be a template for world soccer post-coronavirus?

If there’s a comprehensive book detailing all of Major League Soccer’s transfer, trade and draft rules somewhere, it has remained largely unread by the masses. Sometimes it appears that MLS itself is not totally familiar with its own convoluted guidelines, inventing new rules or utilizing a previously unknown loophole to get a certain player to a certain club.

The Designated Player rule was, after all, initially designed to give the LA Galaxy a mechanism to sign David Beckham. “The Beckham Rule”, it was briefly dubbed. While MLS has largely attempted to align itself with the established European and South American soccer spheres, ditching early concepts like running penalty kicks in favor of a more orthodox format, its transfer system has remained an anomaly.

Soccer’s method of signing and selling players might be about to change. The coronavirus pandemic has forced leagues to suspend or even abandon their seasons, and it has forced soccer to ask some pressing questions of itself.

One of them concerns the current transfer system, and whether it will be sustainable in the post-coronavirus age. How will it be adversely affected?

“There will be lots of trades, a situation that will bring football closer to the NBA,” Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici suggested in late March.

Cristiano Ronaldo is no stranger to the transfer market, but the Juventus star and world soccer as a whole might want to study up on the MLS system. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo is no stranger to the transfer market, but the Juventus star and world soccer as a whole might want to study up on the MLS system. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

A transfer market slowdown is indeed expected, with even Europe’s elite clubs hunkering down financially. Atletico Madrid and Barcelona have imposed pay cuts of 70% on their players to avoid financial armageddon. The Bundesliga has also warned that many of its clubs will face financial peril if play doesn’t resume soon.

The transfer gossip column might be a little sparse this year as clubs concern themselves with merely surviving over finding 20-goal strikers. Paul Pogba’s situation is perhaps an early sign of things to come, with the French midfielder now expected to stay at Manchester United due to a lack of suitors capable of paying his transfer fee. Mega-money moves will be hard to come by.

Former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness sees an opportunity, though. “The current situation is a threat, but also a chance to change the coordinates,” he said recently. “You can't dictate it, but transfer fees in excess of ($108 million) will be a thing of the past for the next few years. The transfer fees will drop and will not return to the current level in the next two, three years. All countries are affected. There will most likely be a new footballing world.”

Both Hoeness and Paratici predict a fundamental change in the way soccer works. So could the MLS transfer system, an outlier for a quarter of a century, now provide a template for the rest of the sport to follow? Could a similar system work in Europe?

Even before the coronavirus crisis struck, soccer’s transfer market was spiraling out of control. There appeared to be no ceiling on the price some clubs were willing to pay for players. The inflation of the last decade has been astonishing, from Cristiano Ronaldo’s $99 million move to Real Madrid in 2009 to Neymar’s landmark $263 million switch to Paris Saint-Germain three years ago.

However, the impact of inflation was harsher in lower divisions like the English Championship, where the increasing cost of players has forced clubs to spend more on player wages than they make in income.

It’s clear that the reset button must be pressed at some point and, as Hoeness suggests, this might be the best chance to do that. Soccer must change to ensure its continued existence and an overhaul of the transfer market seems an obvious place to start. It is the primary source of the sport’s out-of-control capitalism.

To work in Europe, the overly complex MLS system would have to be simplified. Canadian and American fans are accustomed to trades, drafts and the spreadsheet-ification of sports. The tracking of trades and drafts in the NFL, NBA and MLB has become a pastime in its own right, with much more than supply and demand to consider in any move.

But there’s reason to believe a centralized trade system could work. Opening up the marketplace could potentially give both clubs and players more freedom, although it would likely require cooperation from all divisions within UEFA’s jurisdiction. It could also eradicate the loan market which, in recent years, has become a way for elite clubs to hoard players for their own benefit – see Chelsea and Manchester City’s current stable.

Greed might halt any plans before they get off the ground. While Europe’s elite level clubs are suffering right now, they remain the only ones likely to thrive in a post-coronavirus marketplace, considering their enormous cash reserves.

Collective responsibility is a rare commodity in soccer, but that might be required to adapt the sport for a new world. MLS might now be in a better place than its European counterparts, at least when it comes to the transfer market, to handle the financial fallout that will linger long after lockdown is lifted.

Far from being the sport’s outlier, MLS might now be showing the way forward.

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