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MLS heading in right direction with retention of young American stars.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, September 21, 1999) -- Major League Soccer announced the retention of two more American stars Tuesday, which is good news for the struggling sport in this country. We're talking the top defensive midfielder, Chris Armas, and perhaps the leading striker, Brian McBride.

MLS executive vice president Ivan Gazidis declined to give out details except to say that the players were signed long-term, through 2002. Salaries weren't disclosed, but it is expected they will jump considerably. Maximum salary is $247,000.

Bulwarks on the Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew, respectively, as well as the United States national team, they join six other top-rated U.S. players -- midfielders Jason Kreis, Richie Williams, and Ben Olsen, forward Chris Albright, defender Eddie Pope and goalkeeper Zach Thornton -- with long-term pacts.

MLS also hopes to re-sign at least 10 more prominent young players who have distinguished themselves:

  • Forward: Joe-Max Moore.
  • Midfielders Eddie Lewis, Brian Maisonneuve, Steve Ralston, Ross Paule, Joey DiGiamarino, Clint Mathis, Matt McKeon.
  • Goalkeepers: Kevin Hartman, Matt Jordan.

"Keeping the U.S. players is a priority with us," Gazidis said. "It may be unrealistic to think that we can always be competitive in every situation . . . My wish list is to keep all U.S. players that we possibly can here and (get) some of the ones overseas back."

MLS is particularly concerned about national team regulars Moore, who has played professionally in Germany, and Lewis, who has expressed interest in Europe.

"For me, it's really got nothing to do with the coach, the team or (Major League Soccer), for that matter," Lewis told the San Jose Mercury News. "It's always been my dream, and I sort of owe it to myself to become the best player I can be. If I were given the opportunity to play at one of the most competitive levels or leagues in the world, I'd be selling myself short if I didn't take it."

Armas said he considered playing overseas. "I'm not 21 years old . . . I'm 27 . . . Some people said give it a shot now, but it felt right to stay in the country and play. . . I followed my heart."

Major League Soccer is trying to respond to foreign leagues' new-found interest in U.S. players, which is expected to expand as the United States Soccer Federationís development Project 2010 program grows.

Top clubs in Europe can pay much more money than the MLS maximum, and the caliber of soccer generally is better than in the four-year-old American first division.

But the key, many observers think, is playing time. High-bankrolled European clubs frequently stack up top talent - like Oklahoma used to in college football and Florida State now does. The result is that it is not uncommon for good $500,000-a-year players to be non-playing reserves. Sitting on the bench, no matter what the league, no matter what the training, is no substitute for playing games - and may stunt the development of players.

Claudio Reyna, the U.S. star playmaker, has been a better player the last two years -- with extensive playing time in Wolfsburg (Germany) and Glasgow Rangers (Scotland) -- than he was while rarely seeing action with Bayer Leverkusen (Germany).

What Major League Soccer is trying to do with its relatively modest retention plan is at least offer a viable option for young players who are establishing a niche for themselves with the American public, most of whom are needed for the sport to succeed in the United States.

The pressures from overseas likely will intensify -- right after high school in some cases -- with the growth of soccer talent expected from the mammoth Project 2010 development program of U.S. Soccer, aimed at 14-year-olds and up.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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