How roster building works in Major League Soccer

Major League Soccer has its own set of rules, it’s not just in the lack of promotion and relegation where it differs to others around the world.

The roster rules and strict transfer regulations make MLS a unique and often difficult place to operate for even the most seasoned of head coaches or sporting directors. And that’s not to mention the supporters, who must do their best to keep up as clubs deal in GAM, TAM, DPs, and Draft picks.

To help you make sense of it all, here’s a breakdown of the MLS transfer and roster regulations.

Roster slots

An MLS roster is split up into two sections: Senior and Supplemental.

Up to 20 players, occupying slots 1-20, count against a club’s salary budget, with those players collectively referred as the ‘Senior Roster’.

Clubs aren’t required to fill slots 19 and 20 and can spread their entire salary budget across 18 senior slots. For every unfilled slot below 18, a minimum salary budget charge will be applied to the club by MLS.

Supplemental Roster Slots

Slots 21-30 on an MLS roster are classed as ‘supplemental’: they do not count against a club’s budget charge.

No more than 10 players can be added to a club’s Supplemental Roster, subject to the season-ending injury, injured list, and loan exceptions. Generation Adidas players are Supplemental Roster players during the initial guaranteed term of their contract.

International Roster Slots

MLS teams have eight international roster slots. However, these slots can be traded for players and Allocation Money, meaning teams often end up with more or less than eight.

A player is deemed international if he does not have US citizenship or any other kind of legal resident status, or does not hold refugee or asylum status.

If an international player is a member of an MLS academy in the year before he turns 16, he will count as a domestic player and not take an international roster slot. There is no limit placed on the number of homegrown players a club can sign each year.

Allocation Ranking List

The Allocation Process is the mechanism by which a club gets first priority to sign a player listed on the Allocation Ranking List. This list is made up of select United States Men’s National Team players, select United States youth internationals, and former MLS players returning to the league after a spell elsewhere, but only for an outgoing fee of $500k or more.

The Allocation Ranking Order is set in reverse order of the standings from the previous MLS regular season, with expansion clubs moving to the top. Once a club has used its place at the top of the allocation order, it will then drop back down to the bottom.

However, Major League Soccer’s Board of Governors approved an update to the MLS Roster Rules and Regulations involving the elimination of the Allocation Ranking List. Effective immediately, any players previously on the Allocation Ranking List will be assigned through the MLS Discovery Process.

MLS SuperDraft

The MLS SuperDraft is the annual draft of young talent from college and, in some cases, non-collegiate backgrounds. Generation Adidas Players are also involved.

Expansion teams get the first pick, with the rest of the teams making their picks in reverse order of their finish from the previous season.

The SuperDraft takes place every January, with each team getting three picks.

MLS Expansion Draft

The MLS Expansion Draft is the mechanism that allows brand-new expansion teams to strengthen their rosters ahead of their debut season. Expansion teams can pick up to five players (no more than one per club) from other teams within the league, but once a team loses a player in the Expansion Draft, they will be safe from selection the following year.

Teams don’t have to keep the players they pick, either, with many opting to sell to other clubs to earn some valuable Allocation Money.

MLS free agency

A mechanism allowing players that reach a certain age and/or service time with MLS clubs to negotiate with any other club within the league once out of contract.

Transfer windows

MLS has two transfer periods during a campaign: the Primary Window and the Secondary Window. For the 2023 season, the opening and closing dates are as follows:

During these periods, MLS teams may request the International Transfer Certificate (ITC) of a player under contract in another country. Deals may be talked about and agreed upon outside of a designated window, but the transfer and receipt of an ITC are required in order to officially add a player to a roster and make him eligible for official competitions.

Additionally, all in-season trades between MLS clubs must take place within either the Primary Transfer Window or the Secondary Transfer Window.

Roster compliance and roster freeze

Teams must be roster and budget compliant when kicking off a new season. But Rosters will not lock in until six weeks before Decision Day. The time between the Secondary Transfer Window and Roster Freeze Date gives clubs the opportunity to sign free agents.

Roster compliance and freeze dates for 2023 are as follows:

Designated Players

The DP rule was introduced back in 2007 and named after David Beckham, who became the league’s first Designated Player when he joined the LA Galaxy.

In short, the rule allows MLS teams to sign up to three players who will not be counted against the league’s salary cap through both wages and transfer fees. The thinking is this allows MLS clubs to be more competitive in the international transfer market.

In 2022, Designated Players only counted for $612,500 against the salary cap. In reality, of course, their wages can often be much more lucrative.

Additionally, any player now entering MLS as a DP under the age of 23 will carry the following Young Designated Player salary budget charge:

Allocation Money: GAM & TAM

As it stands, the salary cap will be set at $5.2m per team heading into the 2023 season, with clubs allowed to spend an additional $1.9m in General Allocation Money (GAM) and $2.7m in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), as well as filling three DP spots.

GAM can be used to buy down the Salary Budget Charge of any player on their roster, or to help offset the cost of buying a player from outside the league. GAM is tradable between MLS clubs.

TAM, meanwhile, can be used to: sign a new player provided his salary and acquisition costs are more than the Maximum Salary Budget Charge ($612,500); re-sign an existing player provided he is earning more than the Maximum Salary Budget Charge; convert a DP to a non-DP by buying down his Salary Budget Charge and therefore freeing up a DP slot. The latter can also be reversed.

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