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Op-Ed \ Michael Greco

Matthaeus and Lassiter offer stark contrast in MLS priorities.

(Friday, December 24, 1999) -- Recent player off-season news from Major League Soccer reveals just where the league's priorities are at this point.

On the one hand there is Lothar Matthaeus, one of the world's biggest soccer stars. A man who stills holds a first-team place for German champions Bayern Munich at age 38. A man who has appeared more times for his nation than any other and who has appeared in an astounding five World Cup finals.

Clearly, Matthaeus is the biggest name player to ever agree to play in MLS. And to do so, he is reportedly giving up more lucrative offers to remain in Europe. It's a beautiful gesture on Matthaeus' part to help grow the sport at the professional level in the United States, and one his younger countryman and current U.S. resident Jurgen Klinsmann would not deign to make.

It's easy to see what the league gets out of Matthaeus' arrival. A legend to parade around league cities in Metro-stripes for an American summer. If the soccer faithful can't be persuaded to pull a ten spot out of their wallets to watch Lothar live when he comes to town, well heaven help us.

It's a lot harder to imagine what Lothar gets out of it. As Lothar's November media splash down in New York City proved, to Jane and Joe Average New Yorker he's hardly a household name. Knowledgeable fans may revere his skill and footballing brain, but he's not going to be the toast of the town.

Maybe after his November visit, Lothar realized he wouldn't be stopping any traffic on Fifth Avenue. What came next was a series of news stories speculating on when he would actually report to the MetroStars to play. At first it seemed he would stop playing for Bayern Munich in January, well ahead of the MetroStars pre--season camp. Then, the reports seemed to indicate that Matthaeus would leave Bayern in March, in plenty of time to adapt to his new team, according to MLS officials. Lately, the reports seem to indicate that Matthaeus may stay with Bayern for their entire season, and who knows if he'll show up injured, or worse, completely burnt out.

Is anybody else tired of this soap-opera yet? Lothar should put an end to the speculation once-and-for-all. The right thing to do would be to join the MetroStars before the season begins and do all he can to help make the team competitive. No one really believes that Matthaeus is the one missing piece the puzzle for the MetroStars. They are several players away from being a championship contender and chances are Matthaeus will spend more than one evening gnashing his teeth and cursing the ineptitude of his teammates, as did his predecessor, Italian Roberto Donadoni.

Matthaeus is smart enough to know what he's getting into and it's really too late to back out of it now and maintain any dignity. But MLS needs Lothar more than Lothar needs MLS, so the league will continue to get jerked around in the press as Matthaeus' U.S. arrival keeps getting pushed back.

On the other hand (see second paragraph) and on the other side of the league's chain of power is U.S. national teamer and all-time MLS leading scorer Roy Lassiter. The memory from D.C. United's MLS Cup '99 victory was barely a week old when the news came down that Lassiter -- United's leading scorer -- was dealt to the Miami Fusion, as the player to be named later in a prior trade that saw John Maessner and young forward Chris Albright moved to D.C. United for Brian Kamler.

Of all the players in the deal, only Lassiter can be considered a league star. The other names hardly have any weight at all. It's another baffling single-entity deal, one of those back-room brokered MLS moves that leaves fans scratching their heads.

Lassiter is moved for the third time in four seasons to improve a team that needs help just about everywhere but at the striker position. Before Lassiter was dealt, Welton, Eric Wynalda and Diego Serna (when he returns from injury) were set to compete for two starting positions.

According to reports, Lassiter is none too pleased with his latest relocation. D.C. United attributes the decision to salary cap considerations, but when you learn that Lassiter only makes $100,000, far below the league maximum of $250,000, the excuse doesn't make a lot of sense. What player can D.C. hold on to with the extra $100,000 that is worth more to the club than Lassiter?

And does anybody really believe United are supporting Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos, Ben Olsen and everyone else on the $1.7 million salary cap?

No matter what the rational for moving Lassiter, the league has got to make an effort to stop jerking around its players. Or if it must do so to satisfy some Byzantine formula for making franchises more competitive or marketable, then it should compensate players accordingly.

After all, even players that were earning the maximum can just get tired of the poor treatment. Alexi Lalas probably finally got tired of living out a suitcase and being traded from loser to loser. Joe-Max Moore got lucky and escaped to England's Everton for a huge wage increase. Apparently the league did not do enough, early enough to persuade him to stay.

Lassiter may yet end up traded to another club that really needs fire power up front, but no matter where he plays in 2000 he should be making the league maximum, or at least double his current salary. No player is more deserving of the financial reward both for his on-field performance and for putting up with the league's capriciousness.

By announcing recent rule changes that bring MLS more in-line with international standards the league has shown true fans a respect that will hopefully be rewarded at the turnstiles. The next step is show the same respect for the players, like Roy Lassiter, who hold up improving standards of play.

Michael Greco is editor of the American soccer webzine "A Clash of Heads" which can be found at www.headsclash.com/. He can be e-mailed at editor@headsclash.com.

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