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It Seems To Me . . .

Limits on foreigners might help MLS, but will it aid U.S. soccer?

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

BRUSSELS, Belgium (Thursday, December 23, 1999) -- A number of readers e-mailed after I reported here from the headquarters on the European Economic Community that FIFA and UEFA were stepping up their efforts to try to limit the number of foreigners who can be on the field at one time for any professional team in Europe. I noted that if teams are limited to no more than five foreigners at any one time, there will be far fewer opportunities for Americans to play over here, and that will hurt American soccer.

Most of the e-mail I received took issue with my conclusion. Yes, the writers noted, such a rule might limit opportunities for individual players, but that "American soccer" would be better off because talented American players would be forced to stay in Major League Soccer, and the United States professional league will be strengthened.

I found this e-mail interesting on several levels, and certainly worthy of comment. On one level it shows there already exists a certain level of fan discontent because players are leaving MLS for better paying European billets. The anger seems directed both at MLS for not paying salaries at a sufficient level to keep players; and at least some level of anger at the players themselves for abandoning their MLS teams and fans.

MLS needs to take notice of this kind of anger. At the heart of MLS's long-range business plan is the intention that at some point in the future it will become a "net-seller" of players. It wants to turn itself, at least to some extent, into a developmental league acquiring young players and then selling them to rich clubs at a significant mark-up.

Columbus' Stern John is the poster boy for this approach. MLS probably had a grand total of less than $350,000 invested in him (and possibly considerably less). The league sold him to Nottingham Forest for a guaranteed $2.4 million which could escalate to as much as $6 million depending on how well he does, and whether the team is able to return to England's Premier League. A couple of deals like that a year would certainly help MLS' bottom line.

European soccer fans have grown used to the constant movement of players. But the structure of individual team ownership means that when a team sells a player, it can use the income from the sale to acquire a player of equal or even greater stature. But given the collective nature of MLS' ownership there is no guarantee that any of the income from the sale of a specific player will be used to acquire a player to replace the departing player. Columbus, for instance, is owed an "allocation" by the league for losing John, but whether that player will be a guaranteed All-Star as was John is anyone's guess.

MLS officials point out that in American sports there is a great deal of free agency player movement, whether in Major League Baseball or the National Basketball Association. But the fans in these sports have built up team loyalty over generations. MLS, however, is still in its infancy, and the way to build fan loyalty is not by letting a team's star players and fan favorites leave either for greener pastures abroad, or to toil for other MLS teams because of the league's inflexible salary cap.

But the heart of the argument advanced by the e-mailers is that American soccer will benefit from fewer foreign opportunities for American players given the potential salutatory effect on MLS. The central question here, of course, is whether by definition what's good for MLS is good for American soccer. The answer, generally, is of course. American soccer can only benefit as MLS becomes more established and the quality of play improves. But over the short term, and even in the future, the success of the U.S. at the international level will depend on American players getting the best training and the best competition possible. For a long time to come, that will mean some of our better players, and especially some of the better younger players, will be heading abroad.

There is no fiercer defender of Major League Soccer than national team coach Bruce Arena. But at the same time he sees the accelerated development of various national team pool members who are playing abroad. "There's no doubt that a number of players have benefited playing outside the U.S.," Arena said. "We are helped at the national level by having a nucleus of players who are training and playing at the highest levels."

A more interesting aspect of this MLS versus foreign team debate, comes with the question of whether a player is better off starting and staring in MLS, or sitting on a European bench. "It depends on whose bench," is Arena's view. "There's no doubt that players like (Frankie) Hedjuk, (Tony) Sanneh and (Brad) Friedel have been helped by their European experiences, even though they are not regular starters. For others like (Jovan) Kirovski it's more an open question."

Hedjuk, Sanneh and Friedel are occasional starters and sometime players for Bayer Leverkusen, Hertha Berlin and Liverpool, respectively. Kirovski, is the property of Borussia Dortmund. For the past two seasons, he has been lent to clubs in the German second division. This season he has been with Dortmund but has not made the full team roster, and is working with the reserve team.

So back to my e-mailers' central question: Will MLS be helped if Americans have fewer options abroad? Yes, and that is exactly why FIFA is trying to implement this limitation on foreign players so lesser domestic leagues such as MLS will be strengthened. But does this mean that soccer generally will be helped here? No, I think in the short run, say the next five to eight years, our international program is strengthened by having Kasey Keller at Rayo Vallecano or Claudio Reyna at Glasgow Rangers.

As in a number of areas, what's good for MLS is not necessarily what's good for U.S. Soccer, or vice-versa for that matter.

One other note: one e-mailer, an experienced soccer executive pointed out I fell victim to some faulty logic in the previous column. I noted that currently many of the professional leagues in Europe are limiting teams to dressing not more than three non-European Union citizens for any matches. I said this will continue to limit opportunities for Americans, and that things will get worse as additional countries are admitted to the EU, or if it is ruled that citizens of certain countries that have signed special trade agreements with the EU will be treated the same way as EU citizens for employment purposes.

Actually, in the short run, as the EU expands, things will get better for American players since they will no longer have to compete with players from these other countries for the three non-EU spots on the roster. Sorry for the logic disconnect. Blame it on the jet lag.

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

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