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Dec 26, 2007

Desire to maintain quality drives foreign player rule

There is something about a coat and tie that makes one value defense over offense in life.

Somewhere between jeans in college, khakis in one's 30s and the neck-chafing ties of later home-ownership years, the desire to move forward aggressively can start circling the drain. "Safety first" becomes the order of the day, while the urge for hell-bent aggression just spills away, unnoticed, the same way you lose track of a laundry ticket.

So it's nice to see MLS and its deciders play offense with a significant rule change. The board of directors, a suited set of moneyed men guided by commissioner Don Garber and deputy commish Ivan Gazidis, are taking steps to ensure quality in the domestic game.

Ironically, they are doing so by tapping talent from beyond the domestic player pool. There may be some risk -- but it's necessary.

MLS has announced that each team can now carry eight foreign players. That's up from seven in 2007, with an important tweak. Previously, the seven international spots fell into two distinct designations: four "senior internationals" and three "youth internationals." Now each club gets eight with no "youth" or "senior" split.

The desire to maintain quality drove the decision. So says Gazidis, who took a break from vacation to talk about initiatives initially ratified during MLS Cup weekend but only unveiled recently.

MLS is in a period of unprecedented growth. Garber, Gazidis and Co. will oversee a 14-team league as San Jose hitches up in 2008. With Seattle and perhaps one other team (Philly and St. Louis remain lead horses in the expansion race), the league could include 16 teams in 2009. MLS is aiming for an 18-team enterprise by 2010 or 2011.

That represents stunning growth for a league of a determined dozen as recently as 2006.

But there is a burden to bear for such breakneck growth. The domestic player pool simply can't sustain the pace while maintaining quality. And that reality threatened to undermine the strides in quality achieved this year. Players such as Juan Pablo Angel and Cuauhtemoc Blanco added flash and dash, while the likes of Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Juan Toja represented the solid, reliable and fiscally responsible underbelly of robust progress.

The product on the field in 2007 was simply sharper. Fewer wayward passes. More instances of accurate crossing and shooting. Fewer moments of high comedy or inept hijinks. Less of the aimless schoolboy tactics: charging about without a real plan. The MLS game still has a long way to go, and the league could help significantly by encouraging and empowering referees to simply exercise greater control. But all in all, the game is easier on the eyes than just a year or two back.

If three years ago the league was Amy Poehler (from SNL), in 2007 it was Drew Barrymore. Not bad. Still room for improvement. But you get the point.

And Gazidis wants to keep it that way. Any realistic assessment of the domestic talent pool would raise questions about its ability to keep pace in a period of rapid expansion. So the league directors extended each club's arm of foreign acquisition, the better to reach deeper into the player supply abroad.

"To risk losing that momentum as we go through this period of expansion would really be shooting ourselves in the foot," Gazidis said. "To do something that shackles you during that period, or you could even argue, something that takes you backward, would be the height of foolishness."

Here's another interesting twist: All international player slots are now assets that can be swapped or shopped. Some were before, but it's all been simplified now; some of the arcane layers of player-acquisition gymnastics have been stripped away.

Is there some risk here? Perhaps. And there will be greater risk if this becomes the first step in a faster march away from an original MLS mandate of cultivating the domestic player pool. But it's not likely to be so. Gazidis insists that domestic talent will continue to be Major League Soccer's primary talent supplier. Going forward, each time the league adds a team, it will add spots for eight foreign fellows, but also open room for 20 Americans (or more Canadians, in Toronto's case).

Is there risk in economics? A little, since teams may enjoy a little more latitude to buy foreign contracts, which could further fuel an economic arms race. But even there, the market, checked by budget restrictions, will continue to dictate practices.

"The reality of MLS budgets is that teams don't have the money to go out and become Chelsea or Arsenal," Gazidis said.

But so what if one team tries, at least in MLS terms? With the ability to acquire international slots, a team may choose to accent itself heavily in foreign flavor. And what's wrong with that, assuming it's a good fit in the market and done with transparency?

In a league that's still a bit too homogenous outside of Toronto FC, it might be nice for some teams to develop distinct personalities. Perhaps it fits for one team in Los Angeles or the second team in New York (which will happen sooner or later) to be stocked with foreign stars. Chivas USA tried it, although an absence of solid tactical personnel planning undercut the intriguing marketing concept.

There may be a time when the foreign limit shrinks, Gazidis said. A lot of that depends on Major League Soccer's developmental initiatives, the drive to nourish talent through youth programs and reserve teams. If those flourish, teams won't need to cast nets abroad. Some don't do it anyway; Houston just won consecutive titles with talent almost exclusively grown in the U.S. or Canada.

"The reality is, most of our teams are not hard against international player limits as it is now," Gazidis said.

Teams just have more flexibility now to chase the best deals out there in foreign talent.

There's still more art than science as MLS moves these numbers around. It's just nice to see them stay out of the bunkers and keep on the attack.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.