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MLS seems to have just set a major precedent with Paul Arriola’s transfer

Written by Will Parchman

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Money is flying from clubs’ collective coffers these days at a rate that has largely broken our compass. Whether or not the transfer fees being posted worldwide make economic sense – and maybe they do – they certainly enfeeble our ability to dissect and understand.

So perhaps D.C. United getting to the brink of doubling its transfer record to buy 22-year-old USMNT international Paul Arriola at $3m should not come as a shock of cold water to the system. Arriola’s been on an upward trajectory with Bruce Arena’s national team, has more than 3,000 minutes in LigaMX and, while he hasn’t been asked to score with any volume for club or country, is an able winger. We can quibble about the price, but it only seems enormous for D.C. United. It’s not a huge sum for league teams anymore.

This does, however, put Arriola in some pretty interesting transfer territory. Luciano Acosta, the spritely attacker at the head of D.C. United’s final third danger, was acquired for half that sum less than a year ago. David Accam, Shkelzen Gashi and Hector Villalba were all purchased for less. Nemanja Nikolic and Romain Alessandrini, two of the league’s most dangerous attackers signed within the last year, were right at Arriola’s transfer number.

If nothing else, it would seem the USMNT designator and D.C. United’s desperation drove up the fee considerably. Xolos came out smelling pretty fresh in this deal.

That, it seems, will all be sorted in one way or another. Fees are rising everywhere, and perhaps Arriola’s deal simply signals that advance. We’ll see. I’m far more interested in a seemingly smaller detail that, apparently, has set a new precedent in MLS transfers for Homegrowns.

Arriola, as you’ve probably heard by now, spent some time in the LA Galaxy academy. A brief amount of time. Very brief. While moonlighting for various USYNT age groups, Arriola scored 15 goals in 17 games for SoCal club Arsenal FC during the 2011-12 Development Academy season. The Galaxy, as MLS clubs often do, swooped in and collected Arriola for the 2012-13 season, his last on the club level. Arriola was stretched by national team duty that year, mostly with the U18s, and only played 11 games. On May 3, 2013, Arriola joined Tijuana, and most of this seemed to be moot.

It, apparently, was not.

Isn’t that curious.

This has never happened before, or at least not that I can tell. Until now it’s more or less been an ethereal test case: a player with held Homegrown rights returns to MLS via transfer fee without having signed an MLS contract in the first place. What happens then? Teams have secured Homegrown rights (as Sporting KC did with Josh Sargent) and dealt Homegrown rights (as the Red Bulls did with Adam Najem and the Philadelphia Union this year), but this? Arriola seems to be a test case. And one we didn’t think possible.

Here’s the relevant passage from MLS’s roster rules page.

A club may sign a player to a contract without subjecting him to the MLS SuperDraft if the player has been a member of a club’s youth academy for at least one year and has met the necessary training and retention requirements. Players joining MLS through this mechanism are known as Homegrown Players.

Bolded part for relevance.

We never really knew what this meant, practically. What defines a retention requirement? A couple training sessions per year in the offseason? A greeting card during the holidays? But what it did signify was that Homegrown rights could be lost to time if they were not met. I think a fair reading of this rule is that if you don’t hit a certain threshold, you lose the player’s rights. And Arriola, by this definition, should’ve lost them.

Arriola had been away from the Galaxy for five years, and he’d played all of 11 games with their U18s over a period of about seven months. His first game for the Galaxy academy wasn’t until the middle of October in 2012, and he signed for Xolos in the first week of May. It wasn’t even a full season. Arriola’s ties to the Galaxy are as tenuous as any player designated ‘Homegrown’ in MLS history. And yet the Galaxy are on the business end of $500K in allocation.

Whatever those retention requirements were – I’ve never been able to acquire a firm answer on this – it doesn’t seem to matter now. We have the Arriola Precedent in hand.

This matters. And if it doesn’t as much now, it will in the future. MLS is producing more and more academy players coveted not just by their own technical staffs, and a fair amount of them are already leaking out to foreign leagues before signing at home. Weston McKennie left for Schalke in 2016 before signing a contract with FC Dallas. Say he returns in five years and the Red Bulls, for instance, secure his transfer. It doesn’t seem to have mattered that McKennie had been gone for five years. Under this Arriola Precedent, FCD is owed allocation. Full stop.

The news here is that if you have a Homegrown claim on a player, it doesn’t seem to expire. And, as SKC proved with Sargent, they don’t even need to have played for your academy, just have lived in your Homegrown catchment area. Whether or not MLS has a secondary deterrent to keep teams from simply squatting on the Homegrown rights of dozens of local and regional players it’s never even developed in hopes of collecting future fees, we’ll have to wait to see.

MLS allocation rules are so intricately webbed that they often require real world precedents, much like landmark court cases, to set them in stone. We seem to trip over new scenarios by the year. If this one is the way it appears, MLS clubs who’ve watched academy players fly the coop before signing them, only to have them return years later for another team, will be compensated.

That’s not such a bad thing, even if it does appear to contradict MLS’s own rulebook.

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