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MLS owners met in Miami to discuss roster rules, potential for increased investments

A committee of MLS owners met Monday and Tuesday in Miami to discuss roster rules and strategy around league growth, including potential increased investments and modification of current guidelines.

The meeting was a planned in-person gathering of the newly-renamed sporting and competition committee, which was previously known as the product strategy committee. The committee usually meets in person three to four times per year, including once in the spring and once in the fall, as well around the MLS board of governors meetings at the MLS All-Star game.

As outlined in a story on The Athletic last year, the committee discusses and debates how to improve the product you see when you turn on an MLS game; comprising everything from roster rules to salary budget, the implementation of VAR and the rollout of the developmental league MLS Next Pro.

MLS commissioner Don Garber recently restructured the makeup of multiple owner-led committees, including the sporting and competition group. Thirteen owners were in attendance in Miami. Longtime members of the committee remained, including co-chairs FC Dallas owner Clark Hunt and Vancouver Whitecaps owner Greg Kerfoot, managing director of Red Bull GmbH Oliver Mintzlaff, LAFC owner Larry Berg, Seattle Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer, Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson, Sporting Kansas City owner Mike Illig and City Football Group CEO Ferran Soriano.

New additions are Inter Miami owner Jorge Más, Austin FC owner Anthony Precourt, Philadelphia Union owner Jay Sugarman, Real Salt Lake’s Scott Krase and CF Montreal owner Joey Saputo. Those owners bring an interesting new dynamic to the fold. Sugarman’s Union team has been among the most aggressive in investment in an academy-driven model, but has not been one of the bigger spenders on the international market. Krase, a part of David Blitzer’s ownership group, and Saputo bring experience from owning teams abroad.

The committee has long been a target of ire for some of the league’s technical staffs, who have felt the committee has not been aggressive enough in its approach to growth. Sources with first-hand experience in the committee, however, pushed back on that notion and said the committee had an equilibrium between more aggressive-minded approaches and more conservative-minded, with other owners falling more in the middle. These additions will certainly add to that debate, both within internal MLS circles and for other fans and league observers.

Others in attendance included Garber; MLS executives Todd Durbin and Nelson Rodriguez; MLS Next Pro president and MLS exec Charles Altchek; former MLS exec Mark Abbott, who is still with the league in a consulting role; and two co-chairs of the MLS chief soccer officers committee, LAFC’s John Thorrington and the Colorado Rapids’ Padraig Smith.

“Very, very productive,” Durbin said outside of a Miami Beach hotel shortly after the final day of meetings broke on Tuesday. “We continue to do a lot of research and look at all aspects of the competition (and) sporting area and we continue to be moving forward. We’re making progress, and the process, I’m confident that when we get to the end of it, will yield some substantial and important changes. But we still have work to do.”

The committee has been researching potential roster rule changes to implement to improve the league at an unprecedented time in the sport’s history in North America, with the Copa America this summer, the Club World Cup in 2025, the FIFA World Cup in 2026 and the Women’s World Cup potentially being played in the U.S. in 2027.

That work began with a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group that surveyed more than 26,000 fans, the results of which were presented last summer at the board of governors meeting in Washington D.C. just days after Lionel Messi was introduced as an Inter Miami player. In a media session with reporters earlier this month, Durbin said the committee has an “anticipated deadline” of presenting “initial strategic conclusions” to the full ownership board at the MLS All-Star game this summer.

That would involve “laying out those areas that we think we should be evolving, potentially increasing investment in and obviously if there are areas that we think aren’t working, either modifying them or in some instances perhaps eliminating them,” Durbin said. “That strategic process is ongoing. We are very deep in it right now. And we hope that a lot of what we develop and what we’re able to put together will hopefully begin to come online at the end of this season.”

Fans were disappointed when the league announced no changes to roster rules after last season. Durbin acknowledged that in “a normal year” the league may have evolved or modified certain rules, and that was part of the discussion, but said they did not want to “corner ourselves or pigeonhole ourselves.”

“It wasn’t about resistance to the changes and more about were they broad, deep and ambitious enough,” Durbin said. “And therefore, we were asked to go back and take a look and see if there are ways in which we can move beyond simple modifications to our rules and really take a deep look at doing things that could be far more significant to the trajectory of the league.”

(Photo of Todd Durbin: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

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