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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS faces decisions that could have major impact on its future.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Wednesday, December 15, 1999) -- Major League Soccer seems to be stumbling toward something of a crossroads, perhaps without realizing it.

Now entering its fifth season, the league is facing a number of critical decisions in the coming weeks. What is decided could significantly alter the makeup and the future of MLS.

On one level, this is kind of the silly season in MLS. Players are announcing they want to re-negotiate contracts. Agents are floating rumors that their clients have multiple offers to play abroad; if MLS does not come through, their clients are gone. Teams who are in the middle of season ticket sales, are floating rumors that the one player they need to turn them into a contender has pen poised over contract.

But the reality is that over the next four-to-eight weeks, MLS must make some basic decisions on salaries, foreign players, salary cap and related issues. It's interesting how interwoven these issues become.

For instance, one thing MLS has promised from the day it started to lure investors, is that it would not repeat the mistakes it believes doomed the North American Soccer League. Foremost among these was the big money signing of foreign players at, near or even beyond their retirements, to walk through a season or two over here in the hopes that their names would sell tickets and their presence would boost the league's prestige.

By and large, MLS has avoided the temptation. Whether the million-dollar signing of German defender Lothar Matthaeus will open the flood gates, is one of the central questions MLS must answer in the coming weeks. If you read the European soccer press, virtually every player over the age of 35 who is still standing is looking forward to an "American experience" before they hang up their boots. Romario, Bebeto, Dejan Savicevic, Claudio Cannigia, Giuseppe Bergomi, Roberto Baggio and Mark Hughes are said to be on their way to MLS for seven-figure contracts.

Certainly, the temptation has to be strong in MLS offices to try to win back disillusioned fans by showing the league is willing to pay big bucks to bring over a player who was world class. Some like Matthaeus might have a bit of life left in their legs, and might well be able to still play at MLS's reduced pace. But the league must decide if going this route will not be the first step down a steep and slippery slope.

To its credit, MLS has moved aggressively to sign some of its best younger players to long-term contracts. But a lot of other players in the league remain greatly unhappy with what they are being paid. Reportedly, two who are demanding new, much richer, contracts are Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones and goalkeeper Kevin Hartman.

Jones reportedly thinks he has become a franchise player in L.A., and, as such, ought to be paid at the league maximum or more. Hartman, another All-Star, thinks he should be paid as much as any other goalkeeper in the league, or at least way more than the reported $30,000 he was paid this season.

Both have said they have interest from Mexican clubs and will head south of the border when their contracts are up, if big pay raises are not forthcoming.

And the two Galaxy players are far from alone. On almost every team there are players who are unhappy with the current deals, and who think they deserve more if other players of similar skills are making more.

The league must also really look closely at the salary cap, and especially the effect these new contracts are having on the cap. Basically, at the same time the MLS moves to grant players hard-earned raises, it is only raising the cap a token amount. The result -- more teams are going to be forced to jettison players who are fan favorites in order to get under the cap.

D.C. United continues to be the poster boy for this problem. The league signed midfielder Ben Olsen and striker Jamie Moreno to long-term contracts with substantial raises. Other United players, such as forward A.J. Wood and defender Carey Talley deserve raises based on their efforts last season. Young striker Chris Albright now comes off the Project-40 roster and counts towards the cap. So even though United has already gotten rid of forward Roy Lassiter and defender Diego Sonora, insiders say the club is still well over the cap and will have to make at least one other major cut.

In my view, this is basically unfair, especially to the fans. When United goes out of the CONCACAF Cup in 2000, I hope not to see any MLS officials wringing their hands in despair as they did this year in Las Vegas. In the international arena, MLS clubs are competing against teams who handsomely reward productive player instead of sending them packing.

MLS simply must find some way of accommodating well-earned salary increases within the salary structure so teams are not punished for success.

Lastly, it appears that a number MLS players have a chance to play in the off-season for foreign clubs. Obviously that is a plus for the players and for the league. But inherent in the offers to players such as D.C. United defender Jeff Agoos and Miami Fusion forward Eric Wynalda is the provision that they stay through the end of the European season in May. This would mean they would not rejoin their MLS clubs until June, and would miss a third of the season.

Is that a good idea? From the players perspective, absolutely. But, what about from the league's perspective? On the one hand, it will earn some much needed revenue and the foreign clubs will help pay the players' MLS salaries (at least indirectly). But by doing so, the league will be sending a message that the first half of the season doesn't make much difference -- something a lot of players, coaches, general managers and fans now believe. If this perception grows, it certainly will not help attendance, and that is something the league can't afford.

So we will be watching MLS closely in the coming weeks. What it does between now and the start of training camp in February, may end up having a long-term impact.


I noted with interest the announcement by D.C. United that Marco Etcheverry had undergone successful arthroscopic surgery to repair a tear to the posterior lateral meniscus of his left knee.

All during the playoffs the rumors were flying that Etcheverry had damaged his knee and could be forced out of the lineup at any time. At times in practice he would look gimpy. When I asked him about it, as is often the case when he doesn't want to answer a question, Marco's English deserted him. Pressed, he would say he was fine.

Team officials said it was no big deal and their star was OK. Now it appears that Etcheverry was playing hurt and that the injury occurred in United's final home match of the regular season. This makes his play in several of the playoff games all that more remarkable, and his couple of off games more understandable.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears weekly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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