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Why RSL’s interest in Donovan is hampered by CBA, MLS rules

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Real Salt Lake might not be able to bring in the former USMNT star thanks to restrictive MLS rules.

FBL-CONCACAF-GOLD CUP-USA-SLV Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen revealed a tasty little tidbit yesterday when discussing Real Salt Lake’s interest in Landon Donovan: The CBA is making the move difficult.

That quote from him: “They have a CBA they have to manage, and his contract is somewhat problematic from the year prior.”

But why is the CBA problematic here, and why would his contract prove a problem, too? Let’s dive into the CBA and figure it out.

Donovan’s salary budget charge

For his limited run in 2016 — it started in September for LA Galaxy, Donovan made $456,000, according to the MLS Players Union salary release. We don’t know his salary budget charge, but we can assume it’s higher than this — that’s par for the course. Importantly, he wasn’t listed as a designated player when he came out of retirement.

It isn’t clear, however, why he wasn’t a designated player. The mid-season salary budget charge for a designated player — which Donovan would have fell under — is no more than 6.25 percent of the team’s salary budget. That’s from the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

Free agency rules in regard to maximum salary budget charge players

Here’s where things get weird. Free agents whose salary budget charges for the prior year exceed the maximum budget charge — 12.5 percent of a team’s salary budget — that are being offered more than the salary budget maximum for the following year are not eligible. (Section 29.6(a)(ii)) The player can, however, go through free agency if they agree to a contract below the maximum.

In plain English, that means that players making above the maximum — designated players, I suppose — that would make above the maximum the following year are ineligible for free agency.

That limitation is significant, and while we don’t have complete information in regard to Donovan and his budget charge, that could be one sticking point. The big question: Did Landon Donovan’s budget charge (cap hit, if you will) exceed the maximum? We don’t know.

Free agency rules in regard to salary increases

If you thought free agency meant that a player could sign a contract at any rate for any club, you’ll have to think again. Any player earning more than $200,000 base salary is eligible for a maximum 15 percent raise. (Section 29.6(b)(iii)) Of course, there’s an escape hatch here for an “outperformance mechanism” (Section 29.8) — but the league, in conjunction with the MLS Players Union, must determine that the player in question “significantly and materially outperformed the expired contract.”

Given Donovan played in just six games, starting two of those, it would be difficult for the league to come to that determination. As a result, that leads the league to a position where they might be unable to blow open that escape hatch for Donovan — but why would they want to? Somehow making exceptions for players like Landon Donovan only further opens free agency, and they have a vested interest in keeping that as restricted as possible. They fought hard against it, and in the end, this restricted form of free agency was all the players union could get out of negotiations. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that delegates from seven clubs — including Real Salt Lake — voted against the CBA in the form it ended up taking.

What’s next?

It’s possible RSL general manager Craig Waibel or Landon Donovan and his representation are seeking some sort of relief from the league in order to sign a contract. If the interest is indeed genuine on both sides and the deal can’t be done for bureaucratic reasons, we’re at least trying to sign a player who can legitimately test the limitations of the CBA.

Further, if Donovan is the player RSL have offered a deal and are awaiting his decision — as per RSL coach Jeff Cassar recently — then it’s possible both sides have already solved this hairy issue.

We may never really find out what’s happening here, but as is often the case in MLS, that’s to be expected. This obviously doesn’t tell us whether or not we should or should not sign Landon Donovan — it just outlines some of the difficulties RSL may be having.