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Salary cap penalizes best in MLS.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, December 18, 1998) -- For fans of irony it would be hard to beat the scene played out on the field at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium moments after (Washington) D.C. United defeated Vasco de Gama of Brazil to capture the InterAmerican Cup.

As Major League Soccer commissioner Doug Logan ran from coach Bruce Arena to United general manager Kevin Payne to captain Marco Etcheverry, hugging everyone in sight, Miami Fusion representatives were handing out press releases announcing that D.C. United had "traded" Mario Gori to Miami. So at the very moment Logan and MLS were exalting this championship DC United squad, the League was forcing its break up.

Over the doorway of MLS headquarters in New York a motto is chiseled in stone: "We Shall Not Repeat the Mistakes of the NASL." OK, I exaggerate. No, there is no stone entrance. No, there is no such formal motto. But absolutely central to the way MLS operates is the fanatical belief that the only way it will survive is if it can avoid the perceived factors which caused the demise of the North American Soccer League in the 1980s.

Chief among those causes, MLS believes, were too-high player salaries, and an imbalance among the NASL teams where you had a few good teams and then everyone else. So in order to keep payrolls down, and to pacify this god named parity, MLS has instituted a salary cap situation that all but guarantees good teams will be weakened in the hope that weaker teams can be strengthened. Eventually, all will meet in a mediocre middle where all 12 teams in the league will finish with identical 16-16 records, all will make the playoffs, and the length of the playoffs will require MLS Cup to be played on Christmas Eve, in nine feet of snow, with Logan wearing a Santa suit instead of his normal rain gear.

MLS has established what is called a "hard" cap. Each team’s payroll must not total more than about $1.6 million next season. Last season it was $1.5 million, and while the exact figure for 1999 has not been established, it is expected to be no more than five percent more than last. The plain fact is that MLS has been hemorrhaging red ink, and while revenues may increase somewhat next season, any salary increases will only add to the loses.

Many in the League, mainly general managers of clubs with cap problems, players, and agents consider one aspect of the cap unfair. Teams are being forced over the cap not because they have gone out and bought expensive new players, but rather because their current players have done well and deserve raises -- very modest raises in these days of multimillion dollar player contracts in most sports. So simply by re-signing their own players, teams are forced over the cap and must begin slashing.

Some general managers and most players and agents would like to see MLS adopt some kind of "soft" cap, or a cap with a "Larry Bird exemption." So named after the Boston great whom the Celtics wanted to re-sign to a new long term contract with a huge raise, a soft cap is one based on the National Basketball Association ruling that a team can re-sign its own players with any amount of salary increase, and not have the raise count against the salary cap. It is also the central issue in the current NBA player lockout. NBA owners want now to go to a hard cap like that of MLS. Players are resisting.

Commissioner Logan says a soft cap for MLS is a dead issue. "Look at the NBA," he says. "It is the most profitable athletic venture in history, but it is tying itself into knots over the hard cap-soft cap issue. That will not happen in MLS."

So as the League gears up for its fourth season, at least four and possibly five teams are facing salary cap problems. For the second year running D.C. United has the worst. It is believed about $250,000 over the cap. Last year it had to dump high scoring and crowd favorite Raul Diaz Arce. This year, faced with giving sizable raises to a number of players including Ben Olsen who will go from a Project-40 to a regular contract and Tony Sanneh, whose salary will probable double if he declines an expected offer from a German team and stays in MLS, United will likely have to "trade" not only Gori, but at least one if not two of its veteran players. Reports are that both John Harkes and Roy Lassiter are currently being shopped to other teams, with a trade of Lassiter for lower paid Dante Washington of Dallas considered very possible.

Other teams with cap problems reportedly include Columbus, New Jersey’s MetroStars, New England, Los Angeles and possibly Chicago.

The result of all this will be that teams who jettison players will be weaker next season that they were this season. League officials counter that United was actually stronger this season than last despite its forced roster moves. But that was a result of the unexpected emergence of Olsen and the fortuitous acquisition of Lassiter. That won’t likely happen again.

League officials are also quick to point out in this era of player movement that few of the world’s great squads remain the same from year to year. But in most of these situations teams losing players are being paid huge transfer fees so they have money to go out and replace great players with other great players. In MLS, if you lose a star to the cap you are lucky to get a college draft choice that works out, or someone else’s problem child who suddenly regains lost form.

After the Vasco match Arena was asked if it bothered him that United would be forced to jettison some key players and thus would likely be much weakened when next season its has to defend its CONCACAF Champions Cup. As usual his answer was simple and direct. "Of course it bothers me," he said, "but it’s not my problem anymore."

Next week we’ll look at why MLS’ "hard" cap is not so hard sometimes, and whether the League is actually better off for its cap policy.

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at

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