MLS Discovery Claims can seem like a tricky process, but are actually quite simple.
That is why a new report from beat writer Kristian Dyer is infuriating to read, because it shows how the league makes a mockery of its own rules to help certain franchises.
Let's start with the context:
In 2014, weeks before Villa signed with New York City FC in early June, the league came to the Red Bulls with an ultimatum. At the time, the Red Bulls had a discovery tag on Villa, giving them the right of first refusal to negotiate with the player - just another wacky MLS mechanism.
But MLS came to the Red Bulls to let them know that NYC FC had negotiated a deal with Villa, in direct violation of the rules that managed discovery players.
Now for those who do not know, teams are allowed seven discovery claims per year. These claims allow teams to make a list of foreign players they want to sign in MLS. The claim gives the team the first right of refusal, should the player make their way to signing an MLS contract. Here is the kicker, if the player wants to sign for another team, they can only do so after the original team passes, after which (typically, and now by order of the league) allocation money is given to the team with the initial claim.
If the team holding the Discovery Claim does not pass on the player, it must make a "genuine, objectively reasonable offer" to the player according to MLS rules, and until that is completed no other team can sign the player (Ed. Note the quoted language and $50,000 in allocation as compensation was formalized in May 2015).
One final aspect, Discovery Claims are only valid for the length of the season, so a team can wait for that claim to expire and then sign him without having to give up any compensation for doing so.
David Villa signed on June 2, 2014 for NYCFC, becoming the club's second Designated Player. At the time, the Red Bulls had a claim on him, which makes sense. The team had claims on many players around the world, we know the team had one on Xavi at the time, and they were looking at all possible fits to fill that open DP slot. Remember, this was the middle of the 2014 season, when the club had not explicitly switched over to its new, lower-budget, team-building approach.
Now, besides the fact that NYCFC blatantly ignored the rule where the Red Bulls would have to have first right of refusal on David Villa, the most egregious part of this scenario is yet to come:
Teams are not supposed to negotiate with a player that another team "has discovered," something that should have mattered in this situation but didn't.
The message from MLS: Villa negotiations begin, or else he signs with the expansion team. The Red Bulls would lose their discovery claim on the player, even though it hadn't expired at that point.
Knowing that they might not be able to sign him despite their interest in him, the Red Bulls understood that a 24-hour period wasn't enough time to adequately pursue and vet a potential designated player signing.
In this scenario, the Red Bulls were not offered the right of first refusal after NYCFC expressed interest in signing Villa. Instead, the team was strong-armed into a deadline that would ensure the Red Bulls could not sign Villa. In response the league handed the Red Bulls allocation, as compensation for a gross violation by MLS of the rules it created for all franchises to abide by.
Now, this is not the first time Discovery Claims by the Red Bulls have gone on to sign elsewhere. In 2012, the Red Bulls had a claim on Alessandro Nesta. They offered him a contract that he did not agree with, and the two decided to move on. Nesta eventually signed with the Montreal Impact, and the Red Bulls received their allocation money for their Discovery Claim.
No harm, absolutely no foul.
A more recent Discovery Claim case from 2015 involved Didier Drogba. Drogba was claimed by the Chicago Fire, but at the last minute the Montreal Impact pitched to him after the Fire began to negotiate a deal. Montreal notified MLS of its intentions, and seeing that Drogba preferred to live in a French-speaking city, the Fire traded Drogba's Discovery Rights to Montreal for well over double the compensation they would receive had they refused to sign him.
Again, all examples of MLS teams playing within the rules to acquire a player, albeit - as Andy Roxburgh once said -in a "novel" way. So with this report, fans are left to wonder, why did we not get our shot?
In 2015, relations between fans of the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC are a little strained, and it would be easy to make a case that this is another attempt by fans of one franchise to lob another jab at the other franchise in the fruitless battle online to determine who is "better" (The answer is neither. Everyone loses in this war. Sports tear us apart and we let them.).
It is not. This is an example of MLS selectively choosing to abide by its own rules, and bending them when it feels it can profit, at the expense of one of its own franchises, It is an utter disgrace by a league that prides itself on competitive parity, and stared a player strike in the eye and refused to blink. The Red Bulls, and all 18 other MLS franchises not named NYCFC, have the right to be upset about this and demand that the league never again exert itself to favor one team over another.
Instead we are left to wonder whether David Villa could have broken Bradley Wright-Phillips' single-season scoring record in 2015 playing alongside him.