Guest Column: Major League Soccer transitioning to maturity, but not there yet

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Seattle Sounders’ Eddie Johnson, center, and Obafemi Martins, right, are shown through the net in action during a MLS soccer match against FC Dallas, Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, in Seattle.

By Mike Wise, The Washington Post


Clint Dempsey talks to reporters after he was introduced as the newest player for the Seattle Sounders MLS soccer team, Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, in Seattle. Dempsey previously played for Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.

At age 18, we enter adulthood. We help choose a president. We serve in the military. We purchase tobacco, maybe a firearm. Once upon a time, we were able to buy a drink. We play the slots.

At age 18, we cross the threshold from immature teenager into young adult. Our elders expect more from us. Foolish behavior is tolerated but now frowned upon.

At 18, we are grown-ups.

Major League Soccer will not celebrate its 18th birthday until next spring. It is, however, in its 18th season. The boy is becoming a man, a transition that brings a proud tear to our eye. Facial hair (playoff beards), broadening shoulders (don’t mess with Jamison Olave) and defined abs (Hello there, Becks).

We survived the rebellious years (shootouts and clocks that counted down) and threats of running away to live with Grandma (the league contracted and almost shut down a dozen years ago). We marveled at the growth spurts (seven new markets in seven year s) and kept an observant eye on neighborhood rivalries (L.A. Clasico and Cascadia Cup).

Full maturation is still years away. We expect growing pains and missteps, bouts of self-doubt, journeys of self-discovery and rocky relationships. We all go through it, some with less awkwardness and greater expediency than others.

MLS has reached this period ā€” old enough to set out on its own, young enough to hug mom in public.

Over the past week, MLS has shown both sides of being 18.

The adult MLS went out and signed Clint Dempsey, who, just 15 months ago, was voted the fourth-best player in the English Premier League. It landed the U.S. national team captain, a World Cup scorer in both Germany and South Africa (maybe Brazil next summer), a bonafide top-shelf player with plenty left to offer.

It’s a massive acquisition for the league and particularly for the Seattle Sounders, who have set the attendance bar so high, no rivals could possibly catch up, eve n if they too played in NFL stadiums. With Dempsey on their side, the Sounders will continue to grow their audience. Continued…

Several cities stake claim to Soccer City USA. The argument begins and ends with Seattle. (Portland is a close second.) If he could not go home to Texas, Dempsey found the next-best place.

We also liked when MLS retrieved U.S. heroes Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller from Europe. They, however, were nearing the end of illustrious careers. Dempsey is in the heart of it.

Bravo to MLS for making it happen. Bravo to the Sounders for the ambitious move. Signing Dempsey is the goal, assist and save of the year wrapped into one. Love or hate the Sounders, we should appreciate Dempsey’s decision to bring his skill set to the States when he could have remained overseas for years to come.

MLS’ immature side also revealed itself again, inviting scrutiny to the way the league conducts business. U.S. national team players who sign (or re-sign) with MLS are supposed to go through the allocation order ā€” a peculiar mechanism in itself but one we ‘ve reluctantly accepted into our homes. There is a loophole, however. It’s not listed in MLS’ roster rules and regulations available to the public, and as far as we can tell, has only been implemented one other time (Reyna signing with the New York Red Bulls in 2007).

Because Dempsey is a designated player (earning in excess of $368,000 annually), he was exempt from the allocation order, which, coincidentally, is headed by Seattle’s chief rivals, the Portland Timbers. (The Sounders are second.) We’ll refrain from exploring hypothetical scenarios in which the Timbers could have disrupted Seattle’s plans. The point is, while MLS executives, general managers and coaches may have understood the rule, the public was left in the dark.

Lack of transparency has dogged MLS for years. If not for the players’ union twice-annual list, we would never know salaries. Comparing contracts is standard practice for fans and media in other leagues. It’s a talking point year-round.< /p>

Salary cap specifics and allocation money remain foggy. There are special lotteries. The ability to retain rights to a player for years seems out of step. We could only guess what other wrinkles are buried in the fine print of the MLS owner’s manual. Sports Illustrated’s report that MLS paid the $9 million transfer fee for Dempsey opens another can of worms.

The NSA would have a hard time deciphering MLS codes.

Just this summer, we learned (sans announcement) the league had quietly created a “retention fund,” which allows teams to secure current players for the long haul without heavy financial burden.

Like the Dempsey signing, we are all for it. Like the Dempsey signing, we ask for greater openness. For the love of Stoitchkov, we can handle it! Continued…

This gets back to the edge-of-adulthood issue. Teenagers do not always communicate. They forget to tell us they won’t be home for dinner. We get angry and we get frustrated. But we still love them.

During Dempsey’s introductory news conference, Sounders executive Adrian Hanauer was asked about MLS’ transparency issue. His response was sincere and apt:

“I think we are in our adolescence as a league. . . . We talk about transparency and we want to continue to have more and more transparency in the league. I think that is a good thing for fans. It is something we are working towards.”

Amen, Adrian, amen.

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