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It Seems To Me . . .

Baicher-Jair trade raises ethical questions about MLS ownership.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, August, 17, 1999) -- For more years than I care to admit I covered politics and wrote about politicians. One of the overriding rules of politics in this country is that the appearance of wrongdoing is just as deadly as actual wrongdoing. Which bring up the subject of the recent Jeff Baicher-Jair trade between the San Jose Clash and the New England Revolution.

Since its inception four years ago, Major league Soccer has been fanatical in proclaiming that despite its single entity ownership setup, and despite the highly unusual situation of the same persons owning multiple teams, on the soccer field each team is fiercely independent.

Now comes this last minute Clash-Revolution trade, made just before the trading deadline. The Clash is all but out of the playoff picture, 13 points out of fourth place in the West. What limited success it has enjoyed this season is due in no insignificant measure to the play of attacking midfielder Baicher, the team's second leading scorer.

Meanwhile, the Revolution, one point out of fourth in the East, is very much in the running for a playoff spot. Jair is a low scoring (four goals, two assists in two seasons with the Revs) midfielder who has not performed well, and who clearly had little to contribute to New England's stretch playoff drive.

After the announcement, New England coach Walter Zenga appeared thrilled and called Baicher "a great attacking midfielder," who would immediately be slotted into the starting side and would be expected to produce. On the other coast, Clash coach Brian Quinn, appeared, well, much less thrilled. Quinn told reporters that he could not guarantee that Jair would see much playing time the remainder of the season.

This has all the appearances of a completely one-sided trade. If this were Major League Baseball, you might say that one general manager put one over on another GM, or that a team out-of-contention was dumping high salaried players for younger players on which to build for the future.

But MLS is not baseball. Here the two teams involved in the trade are owned by the same entity. The Boston-based Kraft Group Sports has been the investor-operator of the Revolution since the inception of MLS. The company bought the operating rights to the Clash before this season when a bid to obtain the operating rights by former United States Soccer Federation president and MLS founder Alan Rothenberg fell through.

Jody Meacham, the fine soccer writer for the San Jose Mercury News, asked Clash director of soccer Renato Capobianco whether the deal could be looked upon as one Kraft team out of contention providing critical help to another Kraft team in a playoff fight. Capobianco, who himself comes out of the Revolution organization -- where he was an assistant coach -- responded: "That whole theory is incredibly funny, but not true. There's absolutely no truth to it whatsoever."

Apparently Capobianco has a different sense of humor from the Clash players, and judging from my e-mail, a lot of Clash fans. They don't see losing Baicher as very funny at all. "Everybody now is asking why give Baicher away for a guy who appears to be something of a disappointment for New England," Clash midfielder and national team member Eddie Lewis told the Mercury News. "Obviously the players who have been around are a little upset. From a soccer standpoint it doesn't appear to make a lot of sense for the team."

Maybe in the future this trade will look different. In Jair, at age 24, the Clash gain six years compared to Baicher who is 30. Maybe two years from now, Jair will score 20 goals and be a MLS All-Star while Baicher will be retired. Maybe.

But right now this trade looks awfully one-sided. Given the joint ownership of the two teams, it looks downright fishy. As any politician can tell you, if it looks like a dead fish and smells like a dead fish then people are going to think it is a dead fish no matter if it really isn't.

This is not the first time questions have come up regarding dealings between teams owned by the same person in MLS. Given its other current problems, this is probably not an issue that MLS needs.

Robert Wagman is a regular contributor to SoccerTimes and can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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