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Op-Ed \ John Haydon

Lassiter trade points out ruthless nature of MLS, D.C. United and offends fans.

(Monday, November 29, 1999 -- There seems to be something ruthless about the way D.C. United dumps its popular players once the season is over.

United won its third title Sunday and then rewarded its top goal scorer, Roy Lassiter, by showing him the door -- trading him against his will to Miami. The message to Major League Soccer's all-time leading goal-getter who was tied with an MLS-best 18 regular-season goals (and three more in the playoffs) in 1999: "Thanks for the goals Roy, but you're outta here."

How many teams around the world dump their best goal scorer two days after he's just helped them win a title? It makes you wonder. But hey, this is Major League Soccer, the league that took four years to realize that the shootout wasn't really part of the game, so anything is possible.

You have to feel for Lassiter and the loyal D.C. United fans, who time and again have had to say good bye to one of their favorite players. The excuse from the United camp is always the same: "It's the salary cap''. That may very well be true, but there is a lingering perception that United is not loyal to its players.

Lassiter is not a happy man, and his parting words were an accusation the United management of lying to him about the long-rumored trade. These kind of incidents fuel resentment and the players are not taking it lying down.

In 1997, the MLS Players Association filed suit saying the league's single-entity ownership structure was a sham designed to restrain player salaries and movement. "The owners just want to monopolize and control the movement of the players,'' says John Kerr a former soccer player, who heads the MLSPA. "This is a lawyers league, not a fan and players league.''

In MLS, the league owns all players contracts -- an attempt to create parity and avoid financial ruin. United has a history of trading players against their will. After the club won its second title in 1997, the team sent top goal scorer Raul Diaz Arce packing despite outrage from the clubs El Salvadoran fans, who had spent their hard -earned money buying United tickets. Some of those fans still haven't forgiven the team.

"They (United) upset their fans and then blamed the league,'' said Kerr.

After helping his club reach its third MLS Cup in 1998, popular John Harkes, the team's first signing and former captain, was given his walking papers and traded to the New England Revolution. Harkes is still bitter about the trade but blames the league rather than United.

"How do you think John Harkes and Diaz Arce feel,'' Kerr asked.

Each team in MLS has a salary cap of nearly $1.7 million and top players at United, such as Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno, make the league's highest salary of $250,000. The salary cap only affects the players and not the management which is paid by the team's owner-operators.

I'll be honest. I don't understand the intricacies of how trades are worked out in MLS. But what a I do know, is that there is a perception among people who study MLS, that the salary cap is a total farce. Let's face it, Etcheverry, who could make a lot more money playing in Mexico or elsewhere, is not playing at United for mere $250,000. If a club really wants to keep a player they find ways of finding the cash through sponsor incentives and other secret means.

There again, Lassiter's case may just be due to the hard realities of business and the bottom line. United may be a victim of its own success. The scenario goes like this: The team wins a championship and the players demand more money. The club has to satisfy the core of its team and the money must come from somewhere. A player like Lassiter, who the club feels can be replaced by a lower-paid player, becomes the victim and has to go.

It just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Is this the way the league's top goal scorer should be treated? Is this the way to treat the fans?

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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