Major League Soccer came down hard on Inter Miami CF for violations of the league’s salary budget and roster rules during their expansion season last year.
The sanctions relate to the signing of five players who were either incorrectly categorized on the team’s roster (Blaise Matuidi and Andres Reyes) or whose salary budget numbers were underreported because of undisclosed agreements with the players (Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Nicolas Figal and Julian Carranza).
The punishments dished out Friday by the league against the club and its management were hefty:
- Inter Miami CF were fined an MLS-record $2 million;
- A $250,000 fine was issued to managing owner Jorge Mas, who approved all player agreements and transactions;
- Former Inter Miami COO and sporting director Paul McDonough, who oversaw the club’s roster and budget in 2020, was suspended, effective immediately, from any MLS-related activity through the end of the 2022 season. (He had been rehired by Atlanta United in January after leaving Miami and has since been fired);
- For 2022 and 2023, Inter Miami will incur a $2,271,250 reduction in allocation money for player signings. According to ESPN FC, this represents about a 12 percent hit to the total available allocation money.
“The integrity of our rules is sacrosanct, and it is a fundamental principle of our league that our clubs are responsible for adhering to all league regulations,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “Our rules will not be compromised. These sanctions reflect the severity of Inter Miami’s violations, should encourage complete cooperation by all parties in future investigations, and will serve as a deterrent for clubs from violating roster rules.”
What happened here?
MLS establishes roster and budget rules at the start of every season as a means of ensuring competitive balance. They include salary-budget and roster regulations that apply to every team equally and govern, for example, how select players can be partly compensated outside the standard salary budget structure. The so-called “Designated Player” is one of these roster categories and each team is permitted a maximum of three Designated Player roster slots in a given season.
In the case of Inter Miami, MLS’s investigation found that Matuidi and Reyes should have counted as Designated Players in 2020. That would have put Inter Miami over their maximum allotment last year given the presence of their three official Designated Players: Gonzalo Higuain, Matias Pellegrini and Rodolfo Pizarro.
Also, by setting up separate agreements with three other players (Gonzalez Pirez, Figal and Carranza) and not disclosing them to the league, Inter Miami were able to secure the services of players it may not have otherwise been able to sign based on salary budget limits.
“Inter Miami CF acknowledges that the Club violated Major League Soccer’s roster rules in our first season,” Mas said in a club statement. “We have worked closely with MLS to address these issues and have made significant changes in our management structure.”
So why does it matter?
If a team circumvents the rules — and adds quality players that it wouldn’t have otherwise been permitted to add — through undisclosed agreements or by incorrectly categorizing them on its roster, it represents an unfair competitive advantage.
Even with that advantage, Inter Miami just barely made the postseason in their inaugural season last year, finishing in the 10th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (Chicago finished one point behind and Atlanta United two points adrift). Inter Miami’s playoff run was short-lived: They were unceremoniously bounced out of the postseason in their first playoff game against fellow expansion side Nashville SC.
It’s worth noting that the league’s release announcing the discipline stated that MLS found no wrongdoing by the club’s four other co-owners: Marcelo Claure, Masayoshi Son, Jose Mas and David Beckham. In addition, the league said it would honor the existing contracts of the players in question.
Higuain, Matuidi and Pizarro are Inter Miami’s three Designated Players in 2021. The club allowed the option on Reyes’ contract to expire in December (the NY Red Bulls later worked to sign him in a separate deal) and it bought out Pellegrini’s contract before the 2021 season kicked off.
Inter Miami are still the top-spending team in MLS this season ($17.8 million in guaranteed compensation), according to numbers published by the MLS Players’ Association in May. But the club is off to a middling 2-3-2 start (nine points), good for ninth place in the 14-team East. It will have a tough enough time getting out of the East and making the playoffs. The roster/budget scandal and the resulting punishments will only make the assignment that much tougher.