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Etienne Barbara, Discovery Claims, and How They Weaken MLS

If you have any interest in North American soccer and you're not reading Brian Quarstad's Inside Minnesota Soccer regularly, you're missing out. Quarstad, as well as his co-writers like Megan Ryan and Gerry Wittmann, provide the best resource on the North American second and third divisions today.

Yesterday afternoon, Quarstad ran an article which has drawn attention in Vancouver Whitecaps circles. Former Carolina Railhawks striker Etienne Barbara, a Martin Rennie protege and by far the North American Soccer League's leading scorer last term, went on the record with Quarstad about his frustration with MLS contract negotiations. As we know, Barbara's rights are held by the Montreal Impact on a discovery claim, and Barbara is annoyed with the fact that Montreal can have such a veto on his career without Barbara receiving any compensation; indeed, those exclusive rights are just empowering the Impact to give Barbara low-ball offers.

Ever since Martin Rennie joined the Whitecaps there's been scuttlebutt that the 29-year-old Barbara might follow his old gaffer to Vancouver, and while I've never thought the Whitecaps should sign him there's no question he's an MLS-calibre player. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely MLS will get Barbara, who seems more enthusiastic about going overseas or even remaining in the NASL than taking Joey Saputo's spare change. (He would hardly be the first player to stay in the NASL rather than MLS because of money.)

It's all because of the demented nature of MLS's discovery rules. I like a lot of what Major League Soccer does with their roster restrictions: they help provide for a well-balanced, competitive league that still includes marquee talent, they make room for quality young players, and they ensure that while not every team can be profitable at least it's impossible to lose too much money. Stability, equality, and competitiveness mean a lot: that's why you'll never see me say a word against the salary cap, or homegrown players, or Generation Adidas.

But the discovery claim system does none of those things. Instead, it keeps quality players out of Major League Soccer to no advantage: the league gets a little bit worse, lower-division players actually have a disincentive to move up, and fringe players find it better to jump to marginal leagues in Europe and Asia rather than stick it out in domestic soccer. The only people served are current MLS players, who enjoy a barrier that prevents other professional players from getting into the league and potentially putting them out of a job.

In what I sadly fear is becoming a series, I take @BlueAnWhiteArmy's suggestion off of Twitter and turn it into a blog post. Barbara's situation is just one unusually publicized example: the MLS discovery claim system is demented.

We all fear the emergence of another old North American Soccer League situation: nobody wants MLS to spend its way into oblivious. But that's what a salary cap is meant to prevent. If Etienne Barbara was a free agent and the Columbus Crew, in their infinite wisdom, gave Barbara $200,000 a year, then that would mean that Columbus would have $200,000 less on their salary cap. The total amount of money they could spend would not change.

Allowing discovery claims on professional players has nothing to do with saving money and everything to do with restricting labour mobility. It's a restriction for the sake of a restriction, one which reduces the amount of money qualified professionals like Barbara can demand and therefore increases what can be spent on current MLS players. Small wonder the MLS Players Union has never said boo about the discovery player system: why would they, when it's taking money from non-member Barbara and giving it to unionized players? Or, best of all, keeping Barbara from signing in MLS all together and potentially taking the job of an existing MLS player?

The theory behind discovery claims is to motivate teams to search for untapped talent and bring it into MLS by offering them exclusive rights for one season. If that's the goal, then there seems like an easy solution: restrict discovery claims to local amateur or semi-professional players. Those are the untapped wildernesses MLS teams should be exploiting.

Major League Soccer would be smart to improve its scouting of amateur and low-level college soccer. The current scouting system in North America is extremely porous, which is why Joseph di Chiara can be a fringe Russian Premier Division-quality midfielder without getting a glance from any North American team of significance, or a young Jay DeMerit can play college soccer and USL PDL despite being just a few years from English Premier League stardom. Below the NASL level (in Canada) and the USL PRO level (in the United States), there aren't opportunities for local players to try out for a team and play full-time. There are certainly more useful players in both Canada and the United States who simply haven't gotten a look and who can't afford a flight to Edmonton or Fort Lauderdale to take their chances at an open event. Those are the players MLS should be finding, and if teams need a little more incentive to find them then let's put the discovery system to work.

But applying it to existing professionals is insane. NASL teams hardly toil in obscurity: they play before crowds of thousands and any pundit or scout can watch games for free online. If a team isn't scouting that level regardless of a discovery system then that team isn't doing its job, and if NASL players were considered MLS free agents then it would help the talent from that league move up on fair terms. The same applies, to a lesser extent, in USL PRO. A good NASL player like Barbara has the option of either taking what they're offered from whichever MLS team had the foresight to grab their rights, or moving to another NASL team as a true free agent and never reaching a higher level, or going overseas. How does that help Major League Soccer?

Restricting the options of well-known, talented players like Barbara doesn't help MLS improve its talent level and it doesn't keep MLS teams from going bankrupt. It merely prevents quality players from breaking into Major League Soccer. It reduces the level of play and reduces options for North American-based players. Please explain how that's supposed to be a good thing.