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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS can no longer afford its biggest names.

By Robert Wagman

Harkes Wynalda WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sunday, January 17, 1999) -- Suppose you were a professional sports league and you suddenly found that your teams literally could not give away some of your highest profile players. A problem? Itís becoming a major one for Major League Soccer.

Right now, the League cannot find a home for either John Harkes or Eric Wynalda, two of its two of its highest paid, highest profile American players. Their paychecks are the crux of the problem.

D.C. United must dismantle its team to get under MLSís $1.7 million per team salary cap. Already the team has all but given away Mario Gori to Miami. It let Tony Sanneh go to Germany. But it is still perhaps $150,00 over the cap, and efforts to trade John Harkes to anyone, for anything, have so far been unsuccessful.

Let me digress here for a moment to talk about Sanneh. He wanted very much to stay in Washington. He was offered a contract by Hertha Berlin of the German Bundsliga that reportedly calls for a guaranteed salary of about $200,000 a year (and perks including an apartment and a car) with the possibility of doubling that if he becomes a starter, meets certain performance standards (minutes played and goals scored), and the team, overall, finishes in the top third of the league.

Last season Sanneh earned about $50,000 in MLS. He said publicly he was willing to stay if he got a substantial raise. Initially, MLS offered him a new contract reportedly worth about $100,000, including some incentive bonuses. When it became clear that the German team was serious, MLS reportedly increased its offer somewhat, but in doing so made it impossible for United to keep him, given its salary cap problems. So faced with the choice of playing in MLS for less money, on some team whose payroll was low enough to fit him in (Miami, Denver), Sanneh chose Germany. While the move might benefit Sanneh and the national team, it is a major loss for MLS.

Back to the Harkes problem. United thought it had an acceptable trade negotiated. It would have sent Harkes and Roy Lassiter to Dallas for Jorge Rodriguez, a Salvadorian defender and some college draft choices. Originally D.C. wanted Dante Washington also, but we understand they would have accepted only Rodriguez and the future draft choices.

This deal made some degree of sense. Rodriguez would have solved Unitedís right back problem while mending some fences with the local Salvadorian community still deeply hurt that United had to give away Raul Diaz Arce last year to get under the 1988 salary cap. Harkes would have provided Dallas with leadership it needs and Lassiter would have given the Burn a real scoring threat.

But at the last minute the deal was reportedly squelched. The reason, we hear, was Dallasí reluctance to take on Harkesí and Lassiterís salaries, which would have left them with little room under the cap to make foreign acquisitions.

The Wynalda saga is even more convoluted. San Jose, before its recent ownership change, put him on the market. Given his high paycheck, and performance problems, there were no takers. So Wynalda took himself to England where he tried out for bottom of the table Charlton Athletic. He did not do that badly, but Charleston balked when MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati demanded a $1.5 million transfer fee. Gulati reasoned that it was time the league stopped giving players away. So Wynalda returned to America, a player with a big paycheck, but no home.

MLS solved the problem temporarily by loaning Wynalda to Mexican First Division team Leon. He will return to the U.S. in May, after the Mexican season, possibly to San Jose under new management. In the meantime a question: will his salary count against San Joseís cap? Reportedly MLS is helping finance his sojourn to Mexico.

Actually Harkes and Wynalda are not the only high-priced MLS talents whose high pay checks make them not very desirable trade bait. Reportedly the MetroStars have had no luck moving Tony Meola, two prospective trades of Preki have fallen through, and there has been little interest expressed in either Tab Ramos or Marcelo Balboa.

Basically, MLS, with its hard salary cap, has put itself in the position of not being able to afford its most established American stars. Admittedly all are past their primes, and certainly not any kind of values. But they have long-term contracts, and will have to play somewhere.

A further question for MLS Commission Doug Logan: If a team has tried everything to unload a player, but there are no takers (and even if they simply release the player his salary will still count against their cap) will they be allowed to exceed the cap? Several teams may well face this question before opening day.

FOOTNOTE: Recently a young man who is an MBA student wrote me asking how he might get started freelancing soccer coverage. Through a computer glitch caused by a power failure, I lost his e-mail. If he will write again, I will do my best to give an answer.

Robert 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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