New Era of MLS Free Agency Off to a Slow Start

Three players out of 27 have signed contracts with new teams
by Ray Marcham   |   Wednesday, December 23, 2015

US Soccer Federation (USSF)

Justin Mapp is now a part of MLS history, but very likely in a way he never expected.

He will forever be the first free agent signing in league history, signing with Sporting Kansas City on December 14. The midfielder moves to SKC from Montréal, where he spent the past four seasons. While Mapp was a regular in the Impact lineup in 2012-14, injuries kept him to just 5 matches in 2015.

That Mapp was a part of the 27 that made up MLS’ first-ever free agents already made him a part of an historic group. That he was the first to be signed maybe was a surprise, but he was one of the two players that SKC CEO Robb Heineman specifically mentioned as wanting for the club when the free agency period began.

But the free agents haven’t been signing at a decent rate. In fact, only two have signed with new teams since Mapp went to Kansas City, and they’re both defenders. Corey Ashe moved from Orlando City to Columbus, while Drew Moor is now in Toronto after 6-plus seasons in Colorado. While rumored negotiations have been reported, the chances that a signing will take place before the New Year seem fairly slim.

Mapp’s signing, coincidentally, happened to fall on the week of the 20th anniversary of the Bosman Ruling. That’s the decision by the European Court of Justice that gave soccer players in European Union countries free agency, being allowed to move on to other clubs when their contracts ended without their previous club getting compensation. The freedom of movement for players out of contract that is now commonplace in European football, and with all other major North American sports leagues, had finally come to MLS.

Well, sort of. To be eligible to become a free agent in MLS, a player must be at least 28 years old and have spent a minimum of eight years in the league. Clubs are also limited to signing just two free agents per year.

How does MLS’ rules compare to free agency in other leagues? The NHL is the closest to the MLS system, as that league requires a player to be at least 27 years old and have played in the league for seven years before that player becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency. Major League Baseball allows players to become free agents after six seasons, regardless of age. The NBA only requires at least four years in the league for players to be eligible to be free agents, again with no age requirement. The NFL requires just four years of service with no age minimum, as well, but if the player isn’t signed by the start of training camp, then the player’s previous team regains exclusive negotiating rights for the season (unless traded).

Those are the rules for unrestricted free agency. The rules for restricted free agency in each league, a level that MLS doesn’t have, are much more detailed and full of loopholes and exemptions.

That means the league one should compare MLS free agency to is the NHL. While the NHL does have restricted free agency (basically, a contract has expired, but a player’s current club can match any offer from another team or get compensation for losing that player), the rules aren’t far off from MLS, and both leagues have players who may never see true free agency because of time spent in leagues outside of North America.

But for those in MLS who gained free agency, there are choices to be made. There are a number of well-known names still without a team, including former MVP Mike Magee, Alan Gordon, Ricardo Clark, Conor Casey, Edson Buddle, Ned Grabavoy, Michael Harrington and Chad Barrett.

For some, they have interest from multiple clubs. Magee, for example, supposedly has interest from Los Angeles, Kansas City and Vancouver, along with his previous club, Chicago. Some are trying to hold on to their free agents, like Chicago with Magee and the Galaxy with Gordon. But a good portion of this class of MLS free agents may end up not signing until training camps open, or maybe end up going to another league, whether it’s the NASL or outside of the USA and Canada.

But we’ll have to wait and see about that. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that free agency has started slowly in MLS, but that could change as general managers and coaches get used to the concept. Since the rules restrict how many free agents a club can sign, they can’t load up on players in the way that rich teams in other North American sports leagues, or rich clubs in the major European football leagues, can do.

Free agency is now in MLS, and this offseason will be the time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For the players who have it, it’s the rare chance to be able to see where they rate with clubs and decide for themselves where to sign.

And that is very much a good thing for all sides.

Ray MARCHAM

Nationality:
USA
College:
Washington State
Club Domestic:
Portland Timbers
Club Foreign:
Arsenal
Cascadia native and a fan for as long as he can remember, Ray was brought up on the old NASL. Learned to love MLS. Wanted to play like Clive Charles. Then like Tony Adams. Only dreams, of course.
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