For the first time in his MLS career, Justin Mapp possessed the opportunity to select his next destination. There were no peculiar mechanisms to restrict his potential destinations, no ties to bind him to one club or another. His future fell firmly within his own hands.
Mapp stood out as one of the top prizes in the first MLS free agency class. The former Montréal Impact winger just needed to sort through his options and pick the best one for him to continue his career. He completed the entire ordeal in time to make history as the first player to switch MLS clubs in free agency when he completed his deal with Sporting Kansas City on Monday.
“It was a little bit of everything,” Mapp said during a conference call on Monday afternoon. “It was definitely refreshing, but maybe a little bit overwhelming. [Nobody] has really gone through this. I was just trying to take it in and weigh all of the variables and whatnot. I think the fact that players who have played in this league for a long time and seen and helped the league grow deserve this opportunity, especially at the latter stages of their career. We’ve put in the time trying to get a little bit more of a say in where they want to live and where they want to play, whatever their case may be. It’s always refreshing, but the process was definitely different.”
It is also entirely new. MLS and the MLS Players Union agreed to introduce a limited form of free agency as part of the five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement reached prior to the start of the season. They established specific parameters to identify eligible candidates — players must be 28 years old and possess at least eight years of service time to qualify for free agency — and restricted each team to two free agent signings, according to Sporting manager Peter Vermes and other league sources familiar with the procedures.
Those regulations created uncertainty as the first class of 26 players hit the market last week. Some players — including Mapp and former Colorado defender Drew Moor — fielded interest from several teams. Others found a more limited market for their services. Those realities influenced how players approached their situations and responded to the landscape in front of them.
“If you’ve been in the league — you’re 28 or older — then you have the chance to pick the place where you want to be,” Vermes said. “For a lot of them, that’s very valuable. It could be location. It could be a financial decision. It could be the opportunity to play in a style that suits them. There are a lot of different variables. I don’t think it is just one. I think it gives them a choice.”
Mapp contemplated his possible destinations carefully. The veteran winger, 31, said several teams reached out to his agent in a bid to procure his services. His ingenuity in the final third and his versatility made him a sought-after candidate, even after he missed most of the 2015 season after dislocating and fracturing his elbow in March. He spent the past few days weighing his options and wondering where he wanted to continue his career.
In the end, Mapp opted to join Sporting ahead of the other suitors. His direct qualities — including his technique and his willingness to challenge opposing fullbacks — dovetailed with Sporting’s high-pressure, 4-3-3 setup. He fulfilled a stated need to reinforce the wide areas. Most of all, he liked the circumstances as he weighed the next step in his career.
“I think it was a good fit,” Mapp said. “I was just seeing the team from afar, playing against them for a number of years. I knew the type players they have. I got a sense of the coach that Peter is. Just knowing the players they have and the way I like to play, I thought it felt right for me and my game. Hopefully, that’s the case.”
Whether the process will work as smoothly for other players remains an open question. MLS clubs just received an extra $800,000 per year for the next two years in Targeted Allocation Money. The injection of resources at the top end of the roster squeezes the salary budget room available to the mid-level players — established veterans capable of starting most matches — available in the free agent pool. The two-player-per-club regulation also limits the number of landing spots, particularly if teams choose to wait out the market for a bargain.
Those peculiarities create plenty of uncertainty in this developing market. The next few weeks afford an opportunity to sort through some of those issues and take stock of the impact. At the very least, the entire structure affords players with a measure of choice unavailable in the re-entry process. There is certainly a need for growth and evolution to expand the rights available to players, but this first step introduces a measure of choice and paves the way for further developments down the line.
“It’s another step in the growth of our league,” Vermes said. “I think it’s great — at least from my perspective and I think Justin would say the same — that the process is working. I’m sure as we move forward in this process, there will be different things that will be discussed to help better the system. I don’t really want to go into it, but I do think it has provided Justin and the rest of the candidates with the opportunity to have a choice. As Justin said, they put a lot of good years into the league. Now maybe it’s about the opportunity to get to a place where they want to be.”