The new CBA's impact on MLS Charlotte
(Photo: Kevin Ketchie)
by Vaughn PollmanEarlier this month, Major League Soccer announced that the MLS Players Association and league executives had agreed in principal to terms on a new five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement that extends through the 2024 MLS season. Had the two sides not come to terms, a league lockout would have been imminent, one that would have likely delayed the start of the coming season.
Thankfully, they avoided that outcome and laid the foundation for the league’s growth over the next five years, growth that our MLS team in Charlotte will be a part of.
In review, the changes seem to be mutually beneficial to both parties: The players made significant gains in pay and benefits, and the league maintained a lot of control by keeping in place many of its cost-saving mechanisms that have resulted in the gradual, metered growth of MLS. Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal dove into the CBA for The Athletic but said the same: "The new deal allows for incremental growth and improves some processes."
So how does the new CBA affect Charlotte and how our MLS team may go about building its initial roster? Let's take a quick look.
The Salary Cap
I could write a whole article (or two, or three, or dozens) just explaining MLS roster rules and mechanisms as they relate to the salary cap. It's complicated. The base of what you need to know is what Charlotte will be working with budget-wise heading into 2021.
Charlotte MLS will have a Salary Budget of $5.21 million, $1.9 million of General Allocation Money (GAM), and $2.72 million in discretionary Targeted Allocation Money (TAM). This means that the money available to spend on roster spots 1-20 of their roster will be $9.83 million.
In addition to this total, they can spend extra dollars in acquiring and paying the salaries of Designated Players who will have a budget charge of $651,250 against the Salary Budget cap.
So to simplify things, this means that even if Charlotte signs two or three designated players, which they very likely will, they will have more money than ever to establish quality and depth through the top and middle parts of their roster, a luxury that was not available to this scale for past expansion teams.
Under the last CBA, an out-of-contract player was eligible to become a free agent if he was at least 28 years old and had eight years of MLS play under his belt. The new CBA significantly changes free agency by reducing those numbers to 24 years old and five years of MLS experience.
The free agent player pool is projected to nearly double because of this rule change. This means that Charlotte will have a larger selection of young players with real MLS experience, available for recruitment to build out their roster.
Other expansion teams have had success in shaping their rosters through free agency. In 2018, LAFC signed both Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey as free agents with both men serving as starting fullbacks over the past two seasons. If Charlotte can sign a free agent or two that can slot in as starters, they may be able to begin establishing the core of their roster through these new and improved free agency rules.
Designated Player Tweaks
In the past, all three Designated Player spots could be used at the full discretion of each team. Under the new CBA, the league will now have the right to limit the compensation of the third DP spot to the max TAM salary unless the player is 23 or younger.
This will strongly discourage teams from having all three of their designated players over the age of 23. MLS is trying to encourage teams to sign international players before their prime years to hopefully have their breakouts in MLS (and then make multi-million dollar transfers as a way for MLS to make money).
In 2019, Inter Miami brought in 19-year-old winger Matías Pellegrini, who is projected to be a regular starter and contributor for their inaugural campaign. If the team has scouted well and he can play at the same level as other Designated Players in the league, then the team will be afforded additional roster flexibility for identifying that talent before he’s 23, have a player to build around over their first few years, and have an asset that may result in them recouping their investment in that player.
Charlotte would be wise and would benefit greatly by trying to go this same route of trying to scout and sign the right young Designated Player to join the initial roster for all of the reasons just listed.
“Under-22” Player Initiative
Details are still being ironed out for this program, but the league is trying to launch a new set of rules designed to incentivize teams to bring in younger talent. This will allow teams to sign up to three players under the age of 22 with a reduced budget charge.
Currently, Homegrown Players, who come out of teams development academies, do not count against the salary cap, so we can assume that the players eligible for the “Under-22” player initiative will primarily be discovered foreign talent or domestic players who do not qualify as homegrown players, such as NCAA players looking to leave school early to begin their pro careers.
I could see this initiative leading to the end of the MLS SuperDraft, which has proven to be less and less effective in recent years in providing MLS-ready talent. Charlotte will be selecting 1st or 2nd in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, and I don’t expect that selection to provide an instant starter.
The “Under-22” player initiative, however, will give Charlotte the leverage to scout, sign, and develop players without having to rely on the SuperDraft selection process longterm.
Ultimately, as Zoran Krneta, Marc Nicholls, and the rest of the operations staff look to build out the inaugural roster, they will utilize a mix of resources to put together a competitive side. They now have a better picture of what those resources look like moving forward with a full year to start putting the pieces together.
This is an advantage that this year’s expansion sides, Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF, were not given.
From a competitive standpoint, this is important: a mismanagement of funds can set a team back for multiple seasons. Charlotte will be entering the league at a time of growth and the terms of the new CBA will go a long way in allowing the team unprecedented options in how they structure the team in year one. Let's hope they use this advantage well.