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What’s next for the Red Bulls in the Kaku saga?

Domestic validity of midfielder’s contract affirmed as case between MLS and MLSPA settled in favor of league

New York Red Bulls v FC Cincinnatti: Major League Soccer Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

Erstwhile friend of the blog Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra started yet another game for Al-Taawoun on Sunday, scoring in a 3-2 win over Al-Fateh in the semifinal of the King’s Cup of Champions. It was his fourth goal in all competitions since arriving to the friendly shores and backlines of Saudi Arabia, although the first one scored in official violation of his MLS contract.

This was due to the announcement a day earlier that an independent arbitrator appointed by Major League Soccer and the MLSPA players union to resolve the contract dispute that led to Kaku’s departure to Al-Taawoun had ruled that his contract with New York Red Bulls is still valid. Kaku had left New York as a free agent under the premise that the Red Bulls had not formally exercised the option they held for a one-year extension on the three-year deal the attacker signed in 2018 - with ESPN reporting that Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett had not properly emailed the required documents. With the USSF offering no formal protest in the face of the MLSPA’s claims and the Saudi FA confidently claiming “no mistake” in the arrangement of the signing, a provisional International Transfer Certificate was issued by FIFA to Al-Taawoun and the midfielder began hitting the field in Saudi Arabia.

But Friday’s ruling stated that the Red Bulls had acted properly in their communication with Kaku and his agents in renewing his contract over the course of last year and that Kaku still has a contract in MLS through the remainder of this year. A statement from the Red Bulls both vindicated Hamlett by name and stated they would provide updates on “further resolution” of the dispute, but what shape that resolution will take is far from clear.

While some outlets have erroneously reported that the ruling meant Kaku is now set to return to the US and the Red Bulls, that is not the case - with Kaku’s appearance and goal against Al-Fateh on Sunday providing ample proof. A Red Bulls spokesperson confirmed to Once A Metro that the arbitration matter resolved last week was solely between MLS and the MLSPA and was not before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) or any FIFA committees.

It is to those bodies where the case could take its next turn, though there is no promise of a swift resolution. FIFA’s Players Status Committee (PSC) typically takes up disputes between clubs, players, and agents. But the PSC’s turnaround time can often be slow, with one dispute surrounding current Portland Timbers forward Yimmi Chara’s move to Atlético Mineiro in the summer of 2018 not having a verdict handed down until August of last year.

Thus the case’s likely eventual conclusion is a settled transfer fee of some level at some time being paid by Al-Taawoun. But wherever it goes and whatever course it takes, the case has escalated far beyond any previous dispute surrounding Major League Soccer’s unique (within the realm of soccer at least) practice of unilateral contract extension options. Brinksmanship surrounding previous moves involving Cyle Larin and Camilo Sanvezzo eventually resulted in nominal fees being settled upon before any formal legal proceedings were undertaken.

But now MLS has been forced to take an official stand in defense of allowing its salary-capped and allocation-hungry teams to hold the entire balance of power in a contract mechanism understood in other countries as more of a mutual agreement. Long wishing to build a commercial foundation for the sport in the US, FIFA has turned a blind eye to atypical-but-benign MLS practices such past on-field rule adjustments and the lack of a promotion-relegation system. But a grey area around players’ labor status is a more serious matter where the sport’s governing body may be forced to rein in its doted-upon professional project in North America.

Whatever ends up happening, Friday’s ruling does not change much about the team’s immediate future as they train in Florida under new head coach Gerhard Struber. The leadership structure that both recruited Kaku and mishandled his departure have largely been moved out or moved to different roles, and the playing squad has undergone a massive overhaul this offseason that may or may not have even featured a proper tactical fit for Kaku. Head of sport Kevin Thelwell, who has continued to back Hamlett through the course of the situation, was non-stressed in his statement at a press conference last month that the Kaku affair was in the hands of the MLS legal department and not something the club was immediately concerned with. The Red Bulls have effectively run out the clock on a wave of mostly-muted fan backlash, and what had been one of the more challenging loose ends left for Thelwell by the previous regime has likely shifted into a extremely-late Christmas gift of allocation money some time in the next few years.