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Paul Arriola's move to D.C. United a case study in MLS transfer rules

Paul Arriola's impending transfer to D.C. United requires unpacking on a variety of levels.

First, the details. Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN FC that Arriola is on the verge of completing a transfer from Liga MX side Club Tijuana to DCU for a transfer fee in excess of $3 million and an annual salary north of $1 million per year.

Additionally, according to multiple league sources, D.C. United will have to send around $500,000 of allocation money -- the total includes both general and targeted -- to the LA Galaxy, who within MLS had the right of first refusal to sign Arriola.

The first eye-opener is the outlay the Black-and-Red made. While the league's willingness to pay transfer fees has increased in recent years, paying $3m is still a hefty chunk of change. It's the most expensive deal in D.C. United's history, and the fourth-highest MLS has ever paid for an American-born player. Based on data obtained by the MLS Players Union, Arriola's presumed salary would be tied for 26th-highest in the entire league. In terms of American players, Arriola would rank sixth behind Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley and teammate Jozy Altidore, Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey, Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Tim Howard and Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.

Granted, Arriola's stock has risen over the last year given his increasing involvement with the U.S. national team. He also has seen his playing time increase at club level, making a combined 31 appearances for Xolos during the 2016 Apertura and 2017 Clausura tournaments. But the financials surrounding Arriola's MLS deal are usually reserved for either attacking maestros or U.S. national team mainstays.

The Chula Vista, California native has shown during his time with the national team that he's an effective two-way player, but one thing he doesn't appear to be is a goal scorer. During his time with Tijuana, he managed 11 goals in 85 league and cup appearances. Just four of those tallies came in league play, where he amassed 3,276 minutes of playing time. DCU will no doubt expect a far greater rate of offensive return.

Part of D.C. United's calculations are no doubt connected to the fact that the club is bringing a new stadium online next season, and will be able to draw upon a variety of new revenue streams. Bringing in players to a struggling team can also result in said club paying a premium. And DCU has revealed a sudden increased willingness to pay. In addition to Arriola, the club has recently brought Hungarian midfielder Zoltan Stieber, Bolivian forward Bruno Miranda and U.S. midfielder Russell Canouse on board. The continuing increase in TAM has given teams more salary budget wiggle room as well.

But Arriola is clearly a player in demand, a reality exacerbated by the fact that unlike players already in MLS, his spell with Tijuana left him exposed to the forces of the international market. One source with knowledge of the situation indicated that Arriola has drawn interest from the Netherlands, Germany, and Portugal. That no doubt impacted his valuation.

What's also giving many pause is the $500,000 in allocation money DCU sent to the Galaxy. A player qualifies as a Homegrown Player if he's been with the club's academy for at least one year. Arriola spent a mere seven-and-a-half months with the Galaxy, and played in just 11 matches. But apparently there is another mechanism triggering Homegrown status. An MLS spokesperson confirmed that by virtue of LA offering Arriola a contract prior to his signing with Club Tijuana, the Galaxy obtained right of first refusal should he ever opt to try and sign a contract with an MLS club.

It's clear that there was demand for Arriola within MLS as well given the outlay in allocation money. And with the Galaxy maxed out in terms of Designated Players, other teams were able to try to acquire Arriola, creating a mini-bidding war for his services.

To be clear, it amounts to a clever bit of business by the Galaxy. They've obtained a significant amount of salary budget flexibility in exchange for the rights to a player who was never on the their first-team roster to begin with. But it won't go down well at the MLSPU and others who think the league's players should have more freedom to determine where they end up.

That said, it appears that Arriola has broken new ground in the area of Homegrown Players, though the mechanism is very similar to that of say players who enter the league through the allocation ranking. In that case, a team at the top of the ranking gets right of first refusal to a player on the allocation list. If the team isn't interested in signing the player, it can engineer a trade for players and/or assets. That's how, for example, Didier Drogba ended up in Montreal and not Chicago, who initially held his rights. It does seem to be an abuse of the Homegrown mechanism, however. The only way to change it seems to be through collective bargaining, but with the current CBA running through the end of 2019, any alterations are still a ways away.

As for Arriola, he'll now have a big contract and transfer fee to live up to.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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