The MLS International Roster Slot Rules and Domestication

MLS international roster slots
NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 29: MLS Commissioner Don Garber attends the matchup between the Nashville SC and the Atlanta United at Nissan Stadium on February 29, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

EDITORIAL – The MLS International Roster Slot rules are complicated but have helped the league grow through an influx of quality foreign talent. The rules however have a few inefficiencies (dare I say loopholes).

For many reasons, the middle tier domestic player is having a harder time getting playing time in MLS. International Roster Slots and how they are used could be contributing to this. I explore whether this is a problem and if so, how it can be rectified.

The MLS International Roster Slot Rules and Domestication

First, let’s go over the basics of the league’s international rules and regulations:

1. U.S. Citizens, permanent residents (mainly those with Green Cards), those special status (ex: refugee or asylum status), and player who meet the Homegrown International Rule count as Domestic Players for all clubs.

2. Canadian citizen and holders of certain other special status (ex: refugee or asylum status) count as domestic players for the Canadian clubs.

3. Basically, to quality for the Homegrown International Rule, players must be in an MLS academy by the calendar year in which they turn 15-years-old and their first professional contract has to be in MLS or an MLS team’s USL affiliate.

4. Players who don’t meet any of the qualifications listed above count as international players and their MLS club must have an international roster slot available for them to occupy to be roster compliant.

5. There’s no limit to the number of U.S. Domestic players U.S. clubs can have. There is no limit to the number of Canadian or U.S. Domestic Player Canadian clubs can have. Canadian clubs must have at least three Canadian Domestic Players at all times.

6. For the 2020 season, there are 208 international roster slots allocated to the 26 MLS teams (eight per team). Expansion teams start with eight international roster slots. These are tradeable. (This isn’t a rule but this season, they’re valued at about $200,000 allocation money).

Click here if you want the full details (and are glutton for headaches).

Asking the question: What is the purpose of MLS?

U.S. Soccer’s mission statement is to “to make soccer, in all its forms, the preeminent sport in the United States and to continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels.” Whether or not it’s doing a good job of that right now is another topic for another article.

MLS is the first division league within the U.S. and Canadian Soccer Pyramids and is sanctioned by U.S. Soccer (the details of that relationship is also another topic for another time).

On a principled level, one could argue that MLS’s purpose is to provide an entertaining and financially sustainable product and ultimately compete to be the best domestic soccer league in the world.

One could argue on principal, that the league’s purpose is to provide playing opportunities for Americans and advance the competitiveness of U.S. National Teams (which is in line with USSF’s mission statement). MLS was created in the aftermath of the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States and was an opportunity for many members of the USMNT to play at home rather than internationally or just as a contracted member of the national team.

These ideologies are not mutually exclusive but can be competing forces. Different Soccer Nations and leagues around the world handle this concept differently. MLS teams brought many American Internationals home during the 2014 World Cup cycle and the league marketed itself as a league on the rise:

The league would improve by championing foreign superstars finishing their careers here and USMNT veterans coming home. The USMNT players would improve the league would improve the USMNT. An interesting idea, but logically circular.

Achieving the selected (or both) goal(s):

No other nation outside the big four in Europe chose this route in either the 2014 or 2018 World Cup cycle. Croatia didn’t make the World Cup Final by having the Croatian First Football League sign every major player on the national team to make itself a better league in the UEFA landscape. Their best players were established on big clubs in the big four leagues.

I’m not saying one or the other is right. There’s a way for both of them to be right and work in harmony. If MLS becomes one of the best leagues in the world, that’s good for America as a Soccer Nation. If the USMNT wins a World Cup or just qualifies each time and improves each time for a generation, that’s good for America as a Soccer Nation.

But as it stands right now, there’s no immediate and obvious path forward for these two goals to be accomplished in unison. The next immediate step in the eyes of many is for MLS to become a selling league to Europe.

That does mean providing opportunities to young players, including American Homegrowns. That also means selling them to bigger leagues eventually.

So what’s this have to do with Int slots?

The fact is MLS teams are signing international players then working to make them become domestic players. Every year it seems, fans and pundits of every MLS team are looking at the number of Int slots a club has, net signings of international players, and waiting to see who gets their green card.

If the number of MLS players ineligible for the U.S. and Canadian goes up every year, that reduces the roster spots available to Americans and Canadians. Every year, quality foreign players become domestic players per the roster rules. When this happens, it becomes harder for Americans and Canadians to make an MLS roster and get on the field.

In theory, an American-based MLS team could eventually have a full roster of 30 domestic player who are all Green Card holders and not have a single player eligible to be called up by the United States or Canada.

Please don’t mistake anything in this article for xenophobia. I’m not making an argument for or against the “MLS should just focus on being the best league in the world” or “MLS should serve to produce USMNT and CanMNT players by giving them a place to play” ideas. I’m not even saying signing foreign players is ultimately helping or hurting either of these causes. The jury’s still out.

I am just trying to get the MLS community to think and act on principal:

A thought experiment:

Maybe the signing and domestication of international players leads to more competition that allows the handful of top quality Americans in the league to be challenged and grow. After all, the USMNT can’t call have more than the 23-man roster for official competitions. The league doesn’t need all 780 roster spots taken up by domestic players.

Maybe just one of those international signings is taking away an opportunity for an American or Canadian who needed playing time to break out, get a call up, and get a transfer offer to go the Europe.

Maybe most of theses foreigners are taking playing time away from Americans and Canadians who were never going to make it at the international level anyways. Maybe the middle tier of domestic players matters less to both the growth of the league and these two national teams.

And maybe it all balances out in the end.

What we do know is that the number of Americans on MLS rosters has been and continues to decrease. So is their playing time.

MLS created the International Roster Slot rules to allow clubs to sign foreign talent. Teams are now co-opting these rules to transition international players into domestic players. This has led to ripple effects as reasoned above. In that, the intent and the results of these rules are not in total alignment.

To address this discontinuity, league and club leaders must first ask themselves the question ‘what is the purpose of MLS?’ and how does it relate to the American and Canadian Federations and their mission statements? Any decisions to keep or change any roster rules should reflect their answers to these two questions.

Some ideas for rule changes:

Here’s a list of ideas for rule changes to the MLS International Roster Slot rules, some of which may address the potential issues mentioned above:

– If a player is eligible to get called up for the U.S. or Canada, they count as a domestic player. Otherwise, they’re an international. If they have duel eligibility and become cap-tied to the non-U.S. or Canadian national team, they become an international starting the following transfer window. If they become a citizen and file the one-time switch paperwork to FIFA, they become a domestic player. All permanent residents and those with special status would be grandfathered in as domestic players at the time of this rule change for the rest of their playing career.

– Implement the previous rule but increase the number of International Roster Slots from 208 to 260 (an extra two per team). These two would seem like a good and balanced alternative to the current system.

– All Homegrowns, SuperDraft picks, and Young DPs count as domestic players for the duration of their initial MLS contract, to help MLS become a selling league and #PlayYourKids. Alternatively, Homegrowns and Generation Adidas players could count as domestic players as long as they maintain the Homegrown/GA status.

– Change the International Slot rules completely and be similar to the English Premier League or Liga MX. Set a requirement for matchday rosters but do not restrict teams in the roster building process. Not sure I actually like this idea, but it’s worth debate.

– Canadian players count as domestic players for all MLS teams, not just the teams in Canada. There’s not enough quality Canadian players to take over the rosters of U.S. MLS teams. Do not punish Mark-Anthony Kaye for playing at LAFC in America.

I hope this article made you think. If you disagree with anything I said, I hope this article compels you to discuss with passion, respect, and an open mind.

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