The LA Galaxy is the most successful club in MLS, having won the MLS Cup five times and the Supporters’ Shield four. The Galaxy is also able to get the league office to bend rules, or even invent new ones altogether. That’s created a belief that Major League Soccer’s glamour club plays a different game than the rest of the league.
It’s not an entirely baseless accusation. MLS helped arrange for Landon Donovan to join LA, while the Designated Player rule was created for the Galaxy to sign David Beckham. Then Donovan was grandfathered into the DP rule, letting the Galaxy keep both, and when the third DP was added, LA used it to sign Robbie Keane.
Now, MLS is doing it again. With the Galaxy hot on the heels of Mexican star Giovani dos Santos, but already using all three of their DP slots, the league is reportedly set to create a brand new rule — the Core Player. This rule would enable teams to retain a player for DP money, but not count him as a DP, a slot the Galaxy would move Omar Gonzalez into and sign dos Santos in the freed up DP spot.
Once again, the Galaxy want a bonafide star and despite the established rules keeping them from doing so, MLS is creating a new rule so they can do as they please. Typical MLS. Get the Galaxy what they need. And it is typical MLS. There’s no way to argue otherwise. But it’s not simply because it’s the Galaxy.
Just 20 years old and coming off of a spectacular decade that has seen the league reach new heights, MLS has long passed the stage of simply trying to survive. It’s in the growth business, and the only way to grow is with ambition. That’s why it will do what it can, be it inventing new rules or making exceptions, to enable that ambition. It just so happens that no club in the league is as ambitious as the Galaxy.
MLS rewards ambition, no matter what the team. Clint Dempsey is in the league in part because of MLS’s willingness to pick up the tab on his $9 million transfer fee, a mechanism that had never been used before or even made public. But when the Sounders had the chance to land Dempsey, MLS made sure it got done. The same was done for Toronto FC to sign Michael Bradley.
The Designated Player rule was undoubtedly enacted to allow LA to sign Beckham, but it was a transformative move for the league. No other club was prepared to push, but no other club had spent the better part of a year luring the most famous player in the world at a time when nobody thought it was possible for MLS to land such big global stars. The Galaxy did it while keeping the biggest American star in the world and letting the face of the league remain in MLS. When Donovan’s celebrity rose in the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup, he did so as an MLS player, much to the delight of the league.
And every club benefited. They all cashed big checks when Beckham came to town, and saw sponsorship and interest sky rocket. Now, not only do all 20 teams now have DPs, but 16 clubs have at least two. The league built ad campaigns around the American players, led by Donovan, and all the clubs promoted him in the wake of the 2010 World Cup.
Now, LA’s ready to bring dos Santos in. He’ll be the first Mexico star to play in MLS since Omar Bravo suited up for Sporting KC, and he represents the biggest Mexican signing in the league’s history. Be it Bravo, Pavel Pardo or Cuauhtémoc Blanco, no Mexican has played in the U.S. while still in their prime. Dos Santos will break that trend.
The Galaxy didn’t just stumble into dos Santos. The club began trying to sign him over a year ago, when it had an open DP slot, one now filled by Steven Gerrard. But with the relationship established, not to mention the Galaxy’s willingness to pay a salary that should top $7 million per year, there was only one realistic landing spot for this game-changing signing.
So if MLS wants dos Santos, it needs to find a way for him to sign with the Galaxy. LA’s willing to constantly push the envelope, doing things that seem over the top, or even nefarious. Even when it’s things that don’t require a rule change, like establishing the first reserve team in USL last year, or even spending $10 million to build facilities specifically for its academy, the Galaxy is ahead of the pack. But before long, the rest of the league follows. MLS reserve teams are popping up all around USL. NYFC is expected to use the Core Player rule to boost its team, with several others undoubtedly to follow.
MLS can, and has, stood up to LA. A year ago, the Galaxy were hard at work to create salary cap room and move up the allocation order to sign Sacha Kljestan. It did all of this by the book, but when it became time to land the midfielder, MLS put a stop to it. The league didn’t like the proposed loan deal even though it technically didn’t violate league rules. MLS isn’t in the Galaxy’s pocket, waiting for the club to tell say what it needs next before changing the rules.
MLS has transparency issues, and it doesn’t help when it continues to adjust the rules to allow for further Galaxy success. But more often than not the Galaxy’s requests are good for the league. MLS is waiting for the next big idea and the club who can turn it into reality. The Galaxy just happen to be that team nine times out of 10. It’s the most ambitious team in MLS, and MLS is in the ambition business.