Larin's protracted Besiktas move has wide-ranging consequences for MLS
The Cyle Larin saga ended with a pithy press release announcing an official transfer from Orlando City to Besiktas, but Major League Soccer may have solved one problem while starting another.
The drama this offseason commenced with the picture of Larin, still under contract in MLS, wearing a Besiktas jersey on the Turkish team's official Twitter page. In reality, this transfer saga started shortly after Larin's rookie season and culminated on Tuesday with an undisclosed transfer fee, an MLS league rule bucked and plenty of rival general managers wondering just what it means for the league.
Larin's move to Besiktas escalated a dangerous trend for MLS.
Within MLS insider circles, the Canadian forward's stunt was jokingly called "a Camilo wrapped in a Castillo." Larin at once challenged the validity of MLS' team-held options in contracts, as Vancouver Whitecaps forward Camilo had done in 2014, and absconded away to Turkey before so much as finalizing a transfer from his team, as FC Dallas midfielder Fabian Castillo did in 2016.
The central issue, however, is the team-held options.
MLS argued Larin remained under league control through the 2019 season. Larin and his representatives -- and Besiktas -- countered that FIFA does not recognize unilateral, team-held options and that Larin was a free agent.
There may not be a clear answer as to which side is right.
FIFA has ruled against unilateral options in the past, though it has not ruled that all unilateral options are invalid. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has also ruled that unilateral options can be valid, under the condition that the player understands the contract when signing it, among other stipulations.
After the Camilo episode in 2014, when the MLS Golden Boot winner headed to Mexico to sign with Queretaro despite Vancouver's team-held option -- a standoff that was similarly solved with a transfer fee -- MLS added an "option acknowledgement" into all MLS standard player agreements. The options were approved by the MLS Players Union as part of the 2015 collective bargaining agreement.
Those steps were supposed to prevent this sort of tactic from happening again. That's what made Larin's decision so curious.
But while Orlando City and MLS quickly prepared to take legal action and protect their contracts in court -- both with FIFA and in legal courts, if necessary -- the risk for the league was massive. If the team-held options were challenged and ruled invalid by FIFA, the implications were enormous for MLS. Almost every contract in the league would be shortened substantially and the league would lose a huge measure of control over players.
Orlando City agreeing to a transfer from Besiktas -- one that has been reported as below market value -- ended that threat for the league. Lose the battle, avoid the war.
But it may have opened another can of worms.
The risk of other players trying to replicate this stunt is relatively low. Agents usually represent more than one client, and spitting in the face of the party with whom you negotiate usually isn't a great tactic for future negotiations. Larin, too, has essentially gambled that his future will pay off in Europe. He may find it difficult to return to MLS down the road.
But MLS' decision to reportedly allow Orlando City to keep 100 percent of the transfer fee -- a concession as thanks for a concession -- has understandably rankled other teams in the league.
League rules stipulate MLS keeps between one third to one half of transfer fees, depending on years of service in the league, as part of its single-entity system. By allowing Orlando City to keep 100 percent of its fee, it has saved one big regulation -- team-held options -- by sacrificing another.
An MLS spokesperson said the league had no comment regarding Larin's transfer fee or the structure of the deal.
As some MLS general managers learned of the decision, the reaction was annoyance and anger. MLS may argue that skirting this rule once was necessary in order to get Orlando City to agree to a transfer that it did not want to make. But this was a scenario potentially avoided if Orlando City had handled the Larin situation better from the start.
The 2015 No. 1 overall draft pick was a consistent goal scorer from the time he stepped foot on the field for Orlando. Yet Larin was perhaps the most underpaid player in the league.
He crushed the MLS rookie goal-scoring record with 17 goals in 2015, but in the midst of a front-office upheaval after the season, did not get a new contract. He followed up that stellar debut season with 14 more goals in 2016 -- once again tops on the team. Still, Larin, who was making less than $200,000, did not receive a new contract offer.
There were transfer offers ahead of the 2017 season and interest again during the summer window, but Orlando City didn't sell. It wanted to wait until after the season when its percentage of a transfer fee would increase from 50 percent to 67 percent. It also offered a below-market-value raise to Larin, per a source with knowledge of the discussions. Shortly after that offer, Larin was arrested for driving under the influence.
Despite its hesitation at rewarding Larin with a big contract extension, Orlando traded as much as a then-league-record $1.6 million in allocation money for a forward, Dom Dwyer, who had scored fewer goals than Larin over the previous two seasons. After the trade, it started work on a contract extension that would eventually pay Dwyer more than $1 million a year. Larin spent the final month of the season on the bench -- a confusing decision that decreased Larin's value ahead of a winter window when Orlando City might look to move him.
The showdown with Larin and Besiktas was the fallout of an increasingly contentious relationship. Orlando definitely played a role in that escalation.
Yet, while the back-and-forth eventually caused Orlando to lose Larin for less than market value, the club was also rewarded by keeping 100 percent of the transfer fee. Teams around the league understandably will wonder why their future transfers should be treated any differently.
The roster rules MLS sends out to its teams open with a statement that says the league reserves the right to change or modify those rules at any time in its "absolute and sole discretion." The problem when it does so, however, is that it sets precedent for others in the league to challenge.
There may still be players who, in the future, follow Larin's playbook to try to force a transfer. And with teams spending significantly higher sums to acquire players on the international market, MLS has now opened the possibility for those owners to challenge the league's cut of transfer fees.
Thus the fallout from the Larin saga extends into two areas of league rules.
Paul Tenorio is a Chicago-based freelancer who covers American soccer who's previously written for The Washington Post, Orlando Sentinel and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter: @PaulTenorio.