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MLS Discovery rules, explained

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Is “discovery” too romantic a term for one of the more convoluted processes in MLS?

Real Salt Lake v Houston Dynamo Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In the deep jungles of Argentina, a brave MLS scout uses a machete to hack his way through the dense foliage and hanging vines. Monkeys chatter and mosquitos buzz. The tired scout rests from his trailblazing and wipes the sweat from his brow. As he pauses, he hears a soft sound in the distance. Could it be the very sound that the scout has long hoped for, the soft pat tap of a barefoot striking a ball over and over?

Reenergized, he hacks and slashes, moving forward at nearly a full run. He breaks through into a clearing where a young, loin-clothed boy handles a soccer ball with the passion and grace of an artist. The scout drops his machete and smiles. This is exactly the discovery he has long been hoping for.

Discovery in MLS

While it might not be too difficult to imagine Andy Williams, RSL’s head scout, traipsing through the jungle with a machete, the discovery process in MLS is quite different from the scene above. In fact, even the word “discovery” is perhaps too romantic of a term.

Instead, discovery players are those whom a team may be interested in signing and are not yet under contract with MLS and are also not subject to the other MLS assignment mechanisms. To obtain rights to sign one of these players a club must first place this player on their discovery list, a process really as simple as filing a claim to the league office.

Players that cannot be added to a discovery list include players on the Allocation Ranking List, players that have been previously waived or released from an MLS team, players for whom another club already has right of first refusal, college players who played in the latest college season. The discovery list also cannot include players under the age of 18 or members of the U.S. U-20 national team.

MLS teams may sign players on another team’s discovery list, however, the team that currently has the player on their list must first be given the opportunity to make a genuine offer to the player, or shall be paid $50,000 in general allocation money for the opportunity to sign the player.

Purpose

The big question then is why have a discovery list at all? Wouldn’t it be easier just to let teams sign whichever players they want within the limits of salary caps?

As with many roster rules in MLS, it all comes down to parity. The discovery process is yet another way for the league to ensure that one team does not become dominant and desirable above all other teams. It exists to give small-market teams such as Real Salt Lake a chance to sign established or up-and-coming players who might prefer to sign with a big-market club like L.A.

This doesn’t necessarily force a player to join a team other than the one they want to join. Take for example Nigel Reo-Coker. In 2013, Portland Timbers held discovery rights for Reo-Coker and made an attempt to sign him. Reo-Coker, however, wanted to play for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Portland had two options in this situation: they could force the issue, requiring Reo-Coker to sign with them or walk away from MLS altogether, or they could transfer his discovery rights to Vancouver and receive in return $50,000 in general allocation money. They chose the latter.

RSL’s Discovery List

So, who is on Real Salt Lake’s discovery list? Understandably, GM Craig Waibel is fairly tight-lipped about this topic, saying only that, “Each team is allowed seven players on its discovery list. You can add and drop players at any time. We add any player we are interested in and actively add and drop players as interest dictates.”

A team’s approach to adding players to its discovery list may be as individual as the team itself. It is assumed that teams primarily add players to their list with an intent or hope to add them to their roster as Waibel implies. Such was the case when Real Salt Lake added Alvaro Saborio to their discovery list back in 2009 before signing him to the team almost a year later. However, such additions may also be speculative in nature.

Jim Curtin, head coach of the Philadelphia Union explained that there are different ways to drive up prices and “things like that” when in 2016 it was discovered that Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been added to the Union’s discovery list. Similarly, any team may add players to their discovery list in an effort to procure allocation money from another interested team.

Does this mean that Andy Williams isn’t navigating the jungles of Argentina, seeking to discover hidden talent as we speak? Not necessarily so, but it does seem that Dutch jungles are proving more fruitful for RSL as of late.