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Aug 25, 2014

Jones deal shows need for MLS transparency

ESPN FC's Steve Nicol explains how Jermaine Jones will help bolster the New England Revolution offense.

The Jermaine Jones sweepstakes is over at last. Jones and the New England Revolution won, while the Chicago Fire lost. As for MLS' credibility, that took another hit, though it's doubtful the league office will bat an eye.

According to ESPN television analyst Alexi Lalas, Jones signed with MLS through the 2015 season for a total of $4.7 million after his deal at Turkish club Besiktas expired. The contract was signed early on Sunday morning, and Jones' destination was ultimately decided via a blind draw.

That Jones will make the Revs better isn't in question. New England's single biggest weakness this season has been a lack of bite in the center of midfield, especially after the knee injury sustained by Andy Dorman last month. Jones has long been a combative player, and now the Revs will have considerably more protection in front of their back line. This should allow the club's plethora of playmakers the chance to venture forward with more confidence. Jones will no doubt need to curb his penchant for going on walkabout, as well, but if he can do that, this could be the kind of move that will propel New England into the playoffs.

Is Jones worth it? The reported numbers attached to his contract seem about right. There were rumblings that Jones initially wanted Michael Bradley money -- the Toronto midfielder's current contract is slated to pay him an average of $6.5 million per year -- but at age 32, that seemed a stretch. That said, Jones is a player whose profile increased immensely with his performances for the U.S. men's national team at the World Cup, and he's managed to keep himself in the public eye through his deft use of social media. For that reason, not to mention his on-field ability, he's the kind of personality that can provide a significant benefit to MLS.

Unfortunately, what will likely be remembered most about Jones' signing is the rather absurd process that accompanied it. In terms of pursuing the midfielder, it was the Fire that did most of the heavy lifting. Ever since the conclusion of the 2014 World Cup, Jones has made no secret of his desire to come to MLS. Chicago manager Frank Yallop told ESPN FC that he and other Fire representatives met with Jones a month ago, and that the U.S. international seemed on board with playing in Chicago.

"It has been four weeks since we spoke to [Jones] and his agent and kind of agreed on everything, and everything was going well," Yallop said prior to Sunday's announcement. "We identified the player and boom-boom, we kind of get it moving. Then it kind of came to a screeching halt which was frustrating for us, and the club, and our owner, who has put the money up and was ready to go.

"All I know is I spoke to the player and he wanted to come to Chicago. Now he has some choices."

Well, not exactly. Once New England publicly expressed interest in Jones, MLS seemed to be flummoxed as to how to place him, with conflicting signals emerging from the league office over whether Jones' salary would make him subject to the allocation order. Multiple sources with knowledge of the negotiations indicated last week that Jones was willing to sign with MLS for a total of around $4.3 million provided he joined Chicago, but the league wouldn't guarantee where he landed. That forced MLS -- or Revs owner Robert Kraft, to be precise -- to cough up a few hundred grand extra for the privilege of possibly placing Jones in New England.

Given that two teams expressed interest, MLS came up with a blind draw. Never mind that this scenario isn't remotely addressed in the roster rules published by the league. Or that other designated players coming into MLS have essentially been able to dictate their destination. (How would Kaka have reacted if the scenario illustrated above had been presented to him, thus preventing from landing with Orlando City, a club part-owned by fellow Brazilian and business partner Flavio da Silva?)

Kaka was a huge draw for Orlando City, but may not have been happy if another club had been interested.

The league is in the midst of its 19th season, and the particulars of how players are assigned to teams are still being decided on the fly, which is ridiculous. In the past, the league's machinations have usually been explained away under the heading of "flexibility," as in: The MLS needed to do what it wanted in order to grow the league, no matter what the rules say. That excuse continues to ring hollow. Was the scenario of two teams going after the same designated player really so far-fetched as to not be anticipated by the league office? If that was the case, it shouldn't have been. In fact it's more likely that this has happened before, just not publicly.

It all comes back to the fact transparency isn't in the league's DNA, and never has been; otherwise the rules that govern player placement would be more thorough. Every year new rules are drawn up in other areas, as well, but the idea of making them public seems to be an afterthought. Last year it was the player retention fund -- a pot of money teams could use outside of its salary budget to retain current players -- that was instituted, but it was made public only after Kansas City manager Peter Vermes admitted to the fund's existence. The mysterious salary threshold -- used to determine if designated players signed by the league were subject to the allocation order -- was also kept quiet, until the league signed Clint Dempsey and placed him with Seattle. This same threshold enabled Jones to avoid the allocation order, as well.

This year Columbus Crew manager Gregg Berhalter said there was a separate allocation order for designated players, though the league refuses to confirm its existence. And now there is this latest fiasco involving the placement of Jones.

As for how this lack of transparency might end up hurting MLS in the pocketbook, that is difficult to quantify. The league continues to grow both in terms of attendance and television revenue, with potential ownership groups everywhere seemingly lining up to join. If some fans have been disgruntled enough over this issue to stop buying tickets, that hasn't seemed to slow the increase in the league's profile.

But imagine if you're Chicago owner/operator Andrew Hauptman, and you're trying to sell season tickets for next year. That would have been a lot easier with Jermaine Jones on your team. Now, not only is Jones in New England, there is added skepticism over how the league assigns players to begin with. It also hurts the league's credibility if it looks like it is picking winners and losers. Is that cynicism fatal? No, but it doesn't exactly make it easier to grow the league.

Which is why ultimately it won't be just the fans' complaints that push MLS toward more transparency, it will need to come from the investor/operators, especially as new groups -- and their increasingly greater expansion fees -- come on board. If there are more Hauptmans out there who feel hard done by in terms of the way the league operates, that could provide a catalyst for change.

Fans shouldn't hold their collective breath, however. The league's single-entity structure means the teams' owners are business partners to a degree that is greater than it is in other North American leagues. Today it was Robert Kraft and the Revs who benefited. Tomorrow, it may be Hauptman and the Fire who gain at some other team's expense.

For that reason, while fans deserve better, the league will likely continue to operate as it always has, insisting that the ends justify the means.

Jeff Carlisle

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. He has covered the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups for ESPN in Germany, South Africa and Brazil, respectively. Follow him on Twitter @jeffreycarlisle.

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