TAM and Uncle Sam: How U.S. Immigration Policy Has Enabled MLS Transfers

By Christian Araos

Though they are not the first to come to mind, athletes are skilled laborers anytime immigration is discussed. When it comes to pitchers, point guards or programmers, the United States thinks of them all in the same way, as a way to ply your trade. This has always been the case—except for Major League Soccer (MLS).

A New Rule

When the MLS enacted the Designated Player Rule, in 2007, it was responding to the demand for prominent overseas players, like David Beckham, Theirry Henry, and Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Two players, Mauro Diaz (born in Argentina) and Fabian Castillo (born in Colombia) were some of the earliest draftees under this new system. They both signed for FC Dallas as Young Designated Players and received permanent residency. Another, Miguel Almirón (born in Paraguay) only received the P-1 visa after signing with Atlanta United and left after two seasons for $25 million. Each of these examples represents the MLS, and its clubs, using parts of the U.S. immigration law to take part in the “global transfer market.” 

Unlike the U.K.’s Home Office, the U.S. State Department does not have specific criteria in place for migrant soccer players. And unlike the EU, there is also no case law. The U.K. Home Office has a points system based on a player’s national status and the league they were playing at before signing with a team in the U.K. The United States is not as systematic and issues visas only on the athlete’s prowess.

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Since there are fewer strings attached to a player’s visa, MLS teams can sign talent from almost any team in any country. The only limitations that exist are from salary caps and other budgetary constraints. To relax some of these constraints, the MLS announced the availability of Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) for players in 2015. As a result, the modern MLS is now more international and features a higher number of players from Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia. Examining 237 player signings by U.S.-based MLS teams between the summers of 2015 and 2018, 12 players that were signed by MLS teams eventually moved on, with the original team receiving money for their transfers. And approximately one-third of those signings received U.S Green Cards before moving overseas.

Each MLS team receives a fixed number of international spots to use on overseas players who are not permanent residents. Those spots are tradable, and teams have recently received as much as $175,000 for one of these coveted positions. For teams like the NYCFC, each success at securing permanent residency for their players saves them money, which they can then spend on new international players. Those players tend to be in their late teens and early twenties because the MLS is incentivized to recruit young international players from around the world. This has led to players joining the league, receiving a visa or permanent residency, and then moving to Europe when they enter their prime.

The U.S. immigration law was not meant for this. There are already American players who have lost playing time and had their contracts invalidated from the influx of young, international talent. U.S. immigration law allows athletes to receive visas if they “culturally benefit” the United States. Does an American league that views young overseas players as commodities benefit the United States? It does not if you believe the United States should have a national soccer team that values quality over monetary gain. 


Athletes were not mentioned in the most recent version of the White House’s immigration plan. Although, President Trump has expressed his desire to have more visas go to highly skilled workers. Assuming no method exists to differentiate athletes from those considered “highly skilled,” the transfer market will remain in place. That may not be a concern of Trump’s, but it may one day affect the career prospects of a young midfielder in the D.C. United academy—his son Baron.

Christian Araos is a freelance journalist who has covered college and professional sports since 2011. He has had bylines in The Guardian, The Athletic, and Esquire. He currently studies International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College in New York.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.