Atlanta United & MLS Roster Rules: 2018 Salary Cap Scenarios

Just a quick jump post over to DirtySouthSoccer where I wrote a piece about the MLS roster rules and the salary cap, looking ahead to 2018 and wondering what sort of options the front office has to retain the squad as currently assembled. If you like spreadsheets, give it a read, but maybe make a pot of coffee first.

I try to guess at GAM and TAM balances as initially allocated to the expansion clubs plus I guess at undisclosed traded amounts and unconfirmed rumors of future money injections by the league. In the end, if you want to help think through whether the club can sign Garza and/or Asad next year, you’ll need to read most of it.

2018 Roster Panic Part 2: Lost in Spreadsheets

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The Economics of GAM and TAM

Trying to figure out how General Allocation Money and Targeted Allocation Money work in Major League Soccer has been an adventure for me.

MLS Salary Budget Rules Overview – skip it if you know it

MLS is a single entity owned jointly by its members – who are owners of the teams competing in the league. All the owners agree (and jointly with the MLS players union) on how much is going to be spent on players in a given season, and then the league sets the rules around roster construction and provides all the teams a specific amount of money to spend based on these rules. There are specifics and then crazy specifics, but as a general rule, it works like this: Each MLS team is made up of 28-29 players, the wages for 20 of which (the senior roster) are governed by the Salary Cap. Each of these 20 players will carry a salary cap charge between the senior minimum ($65K) and the maximum budget charge ($480K), for a total of $3.8M in salary budget. In order for a team to sign a player making more than $480K (or to sign a player by paying a fee + wages greater than $480K), while still making use of these shared League funds (i.e. not opening up the individual team owner’s pocket book), it has to use up some of its “Allocation Money” (also handed out by the League to each of its member teams based on #rules), which comes in two forms: General Allocation Money and Targeted Allocation Money.

General Allocation Money (each team receives $200K of each year +/- amounts triggered by a variety of achievements and/or other events) does not expire and generally doesn’t have any additional restrictions with it. You use it to bring your roster in line with the salary budget when it exceeds it, either for an individual player charge, or more generally for the team’s total budget.

Targeted Allocation Money is like GAM except it can only be used for players making between $480K and $1M, and it is given out in tranches (agreed to on an ad hoc basis by the league, it would seem ) which each expire after 2 transfer windows. A summary of the recent TAM injections are as follows:

  • 2015 – $500K per club
  • 2016 – $800K per club (expires at the end of 2017 season)
  • 2017 – $1.2M per club (expires at the end of 2018 season)

GAM and TAM are tradeable between MLS teams, and GAM and TAM cannot be combined together to pay down any player’s contract or transfer fee.

Importantly, if a team wants to sign a player above the max budget charge of $480K AND it doesn’t want to (or can’t) spend allocation money (GAM or TAM) to “buy the budget charge down to $480K, it can pay for the salary (or transfer fee) in excess of $480K out of its owner’s own pockets (for up to 3 players) and the player’s budget charge would remain the max of $480K. Such players are known as Designated Players. And the budget charge for a designated player can be less than $480K if a player is 23 years of age or younger.

Other Background Reading on the topic from some immortals: Doyle, Stejskal, and I will add some more here.

Edited to add: Somehow I missed linking to Jared Young’s comprehensive CAP review at AmericanSoccerAnalysis, here.

Some Takeaways

So, it’s important to point out that a team does not have to sign any designated players. They can play with “League money” only — let’s call it $5.2M ($3.8M budget + $1.4M in estimated annual allocation money). In fact, 1 of those 3 potential designated player slots costs a team that uses it $150K, which is paid to the League, and then distributed as additional GAM to all teams who do not use up all 3 designated player slots. But most importantly, in light of all of this, if a team does not “use” its allocation money, it should consider it a real economic cost, since it is already paid for. Use it or lose it. Alternatively, it can trade away its allocation monies, potentially operating on a senior roster of wages totalling as low as $3.8M. But my important takeaway from all that is that anything within the $5.2M umbrella is all “MLS Money.” There’s no way to exchange it for outside dollars, and it’s already been paid for (by the league, or by each member contributing the required annual amounts to the league, or however they settle it). To some extent it is a sunk cost. Anything above that $5.2M threshold – the DP money – is real money, real incremental dollars – real economic decisions to be made by a rational club owner.

And given that it’s included in the “MLS money” umbrella, and not in the “outside money” (or “real money”) bucket, GAM and TAM are endlessly interesting to me. I want to explore the question: what is the best (most efficient?) way for an MLS club to use GAM and TAM? As a reminder/checkpoint, here’s what you can do with GAM and TAM.

  • Trade it to another club in exchange for things such as Players, other allocation moneys, International Spots, Draft Picks, Allocation/Waiver Priority.
    • As an example, Orlando City could trade $400K of General Allocation Money and $500K of Targeted Allocation Money to Sporting Kansas City in exchange for the rights to Dom Dwyer’s contract ($680K/year salary with 1-2 years left).
  • “Buy down” a salary budget charge for a DP to below the max charge (and to no lower than $150K)
    • As an example, Atlanta United could sign Chris McCann for $570K and spend $90K of TAM to buy McCann’s budget charge down to $480K (keeping the DP tag off of him).
  • “Buy down” a salary budget charge to no less than half the original charge
  • “Buy down” a transfer fee or loan fee so that it does not count towards your salary budget (either at an individual level or a team level.
    • As an example a team could pay a $500K transfer fee to foreign club for a player on $400K/year in wages. The team could spend $500K in TAM or GAM to eliminate the transfer fee from being included in the team’s salary budget.

Fiat Money

It’s important to point out that for the purposes of understanding how GAM and TAM function in MLS, both types of asset are what’s known as “fiat currency” — currency whose value is backed solely by the entity that issues it. In other words it is Monopoly money. It is both created and destroyed by MLS. It has value to MLS teams because MLS is the league they compete in and it is used to subsidize MLS salary caps. Under no circumstances could TAM or GAM be sent to a team outside of MLS; they simply would not accept it. It doesn’t exist. When MLS creates new TAM, it simply decrees that TAM has been created and it can destroy it as well.

Since TAM and GAM are fiat, it is also true that in only 1 of the above 4 uses of allocation money, does the allocation money survive the transaction (if it is traded). If it is spent buying down salary budget charges or buying down a transfer fee, it disappears into the ether, decreasing the overall aggregate supply of allocation money in the league. Allocation money can exchange hands in MLS, but its final resting place — its ultimate purpose is to be destroyed/spent in exchange for a given MLS team being granted the ability to invest slightly more into its senior roster than otherwise is permitted. Further, TAM will even die of old age if it is not destroyed within 4 transfer windows (a 2 year shelf life).

With this in mind, I have a hunch about how allocation money is best used, and how it’s not. Let’s do some accounting homework.

Scenario Analysis

MLS Team A needs a striker, and they’re considering two potential options.

Option A: ¬†Striker John Doe, 26 years old from the Championship in England. He can be signed by paying his current club a $1.6M transfer fee and he wants a contract worth $400K per year. To comply with MLS roster rules and not make John a designated player (i.e. not spend any outside “real money” but just “MLS money”), MLS Team A would need to spend (send to MLS HQ) $1.6M in allocation money to eliminate the transfer fee from the budget, so they can sign him and slot his $400K of wages into the $5.2M-ish MLS budget.

Option B: Striker Dom Doe, 26 years old and currently on MLS Team B’s roster. He can be traded for by paying his club $400K of GAM, $1.2M of TAM and he’s on a contract worth $400K per year. MLS Team A would need to send $1.6M of allocation money to MLS Team B, and then Dom Joe would fit into MLS Team A’s senior roster budget just fine ($400K is below the maximum MLS salary budget charge).

Assuming MLS Team A has enough cap room and allocation money to execute either option and assuming John Doe and Dom Doe are of equal talent, health, work ethic, and potential, and that both qualify as international players under MLS rules, which transaction (Option A or Option B) should MLS Team A go through with?

In my mind, the answer is clear, but this might be a controversial opinion, I’m not sure. Under both scenarios, Team A gains the striker, loses $400K of cap space, loses $1.6M of allocation money, and loses 1 free international slot. But if Team A trades for the striker with Team B, they transfer “MLS money” (fiat assets) to a competitor plus the competitor gains $400K of cap room to replace the striker), whereas if Team A buys the striker from England, Team A *uses* the MLS money– they use it up. It is destroyed. It returns to the earth from whence it came, and no other MLS teams can use it to improve their squad. See the difference? Allocation Money’s ultimate use is to be torn up into shreds in exchange for allowing a club to field a more competitive side by increasing the total wage bill without breaking the salary budget rules. You can either *just do it* and sign a player, and comply with the rules by using GAM/TAM to lower your charges, or you can transfer said GAM/TAM to an opponent in order to get your player, and that other team will replace him with A) the salary budget room they just added in his absence + B) the new allocation money which can allow them to pay his replacement even more!

So, why would Team A ever trade MLS Money to another MLS team to acquire the other team’s striker (if the global football market surely provides a supply of similar players that this hypothetical assumes) and if in doing so, they benefit the other team? I can think of one scenario that makes sense, and that’s when the other MLS team has locked up a favorable contract with said player (because MLS is a single entity, contracts do not get ripped up upon trades between its member teams). So if Dom Doe deserves to be paid $650K but he’s making $400K with MLS Team B, and since MLS is a single entity and contracts transfer between teams, MLS Team A might be willing to “pay” for the favorable contract (to get a guy worth $650K but only pay him $400K, and only take a $400K budget charge). Since MLS Team B will be shipping out a player worthy of $650K/year but is only taking a $400K budget charge, they may only be willing to part with the player if they are compensated for the fact that they will have to replace the player worthy of $650K with a player to be paid $400K (to continue compliance with MLS roster rules). So what would the value of this contract be? What might the two teams agree to as a fee? Maybe its $250K multiplied by the remaining years on the contract, maybe its $300K per year (a little extra for the hastle?).

But again, instead of doing this whole thing, can’t Team A simply sign a player from overseas who makes $650K and buy down $250K of the contract with allocation money if they need to fit him into a $400K budget hole? The result seems similar. I suppose it comes down to valuations. If you value the contract higher than the $300K they’re asking for, you do it.

In the end, MLS is unique from other American sports where trading is more frequent. In those sports , virtually the full labor market for a given sport exists under one collective bargaining agreement, and all the players you would want to sign player for teams in your league, your competitors. In MLS, you can sign a player from anywhere in the world, so there is no need to grease the wheels of other MLS teams to acquire their contracts when you can go out and sign your own. The supply of players is nearly infinite but the supply of GAM/TAM is … not, at least not yet?

OK, just going to publish this now. Let me know your thoughts please. I’m 100% certain I got some big stuff wrong in here, but how else will we figure this stuff out, except by trying.

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Late Edit after some feedback on Twitter:

Some things that have been pointed out are:

  1. To assume you’ve got an endless supply of replacement players in the global market, you have to account for the real world cost (real $ not MLS $) of hiring scouts, more of them, and better ones, and analytics departments and all sorts of other things that cost real money. Inherent in this is the admission that a player you are familiar with (by way of seeing him in MLS and knowing he can produce at this level) is more valuable than a mystery player. So the tradeoff is basically, you can spend more real world money in order to close that information gap (of a foreign playe relative to an existing MLS player) and hope to maximize your cap room / wage bill relative to the rest of the league’s wages, or you can save the real world money (don’t use it on scouting etc) and use the MLS money (by trading it) to acquire the player you have more info on.
  2. On that point, it has been suggested that a better way to phrase the argument is that by trading GAM/TAM to another MLS team you are actively shrinking your team’s wage bill relative to the wage bill of the rest of the league (all else equal, like say if you take DPs out of it, or assume everyone spends big on DPs).
  3. It was brought up that allocation money is perhaps *more* valuable for lower spending teams who do not plan to spend on DPs, which could create some interesting value disparities and therefore trade opportunities when it’s a big spender dealing with a low spender.