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Will MLS live up to pledge to retain best young Americans?By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, December 1, 2000) -- On numerous occasions in the past year, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has stated emphatically that the league believes deeply that the future of the game in the United States rests on American players performing for American audiences. To this end, Garber has said, the MLS is concentrating on finding and signing the best young American talent, and then holding onto that talent, so young American fans can identify with the players.
For next season, MLS lowered the number of foreign players on each team from four senior internationals to three. Exempt from this limit will be a certain number of younger international players who will be classified as either "junior" internationals (age 22 and under) or "transitional" internationals (ages 23 and 24). These players do not count against the three-player limit, nor against the salary cap. International player earns more than $100,000 a season, regardless of age, are classified as full internationals and count both against the limit and the salary cap.
The logic behind this system is two-fold: the fourth international on most teams have been rather marginal players. Eliminating them opens roster spots for Americans and frees up additional funds to pay them. By actually encouraging younger foreign players, the league hopes that it will be able to sign young players who they will eventually be able to sell to foreign clubs at a profit.
So MLS has cut foreign roster spots to free up space and dollars for American players. But in case you havenít noticed, this goal of signing and retaining the best and most talented Americans, is quietly reaching something of a crisis stage. What MLS decides in the next few weeks will go a long way toward showing whether the owners are willing to put their checkbooks where their press releases are now.
Frankly, from what has gone on over the past few months, and what is happening now, it is hard to be too optimistic.
Without looking to get into too large an argument, among the best Americans playing in MLS today are, or I should say once were, are Ante Razov, Cobi Jones and Ben Olsen.
Razov is already gone to the Spanish second division after he said he was "insulted" with the amount offered him by MLS. If Racing De Ferrol, a relatively minor team in the Spanish second division, can outbid MLS for one of its top domestic players, that is worrisome.
The Jones situation in Los Angeles is also extremely illustrative of the problems MLS is facing. In the past, MLS has not really paid players in accordance with their talent, or even based on how much value they are to their own clubs. Remember, the league, as a whole, owns all player contracts, and therefore players have been judged, and have been paid, according to their value to the league as a whole. That value has been defined by how many tickets they can sell, and what level of media attention they get.
Jones is being moderately well-paid by MLS standards, probably somewhere slightly below the league "maximum," probably about $200,000 a year. He wants a lot more. He looks at the salary the Galaxy is paying Luis Hernandez, reportedly more than $1 million a season, and he says to himself "I am as valuable to the club, I should be making the same as Hernandez."
But the league looks at the situation and says Hernandez is paid because, at least theoretically, people will buy tickets to see him play, and he will get the league media coverage. How many people, they ask, buy tickets to see Jones, and how many media outlets send reporters just to cover Jones.
Now look at the situation with D.C. United's Olsen, who was lent to Englandís Nottingham Forest for the offseason, and is performing quite well there. He is now a starter, has scored two goals and is disrupting opponentsí defenses. Forest wants Olsen, and is will pay him a lot more than he is currently earning, but he remains under contract to MLS.
From what we hear, MLS is not saying to Forest, "He is not available because he is one of our marquee American players and we must keep to allow us credibility with our fans." What we hear tbeing said is, "We are willing to sell him if you can come up with a seven-figure transfer fee." Forest is broke, and losing millions, so it is not clear if it has the money.
Then, what is to be made of the Mike Petke situation. He is one of the best younger American defenders and is negotiating a new contract with MLS. If his agent is to be believed, Petke is being offered only a paltry sum to re-sign. Now he shows up trying out for German power Bayern Munich, apparently without the knowledge of the MetroStars. An insurance snag caused Petke to return home after a couple of days, but the fact that he received a tryout -- and the teamís coach said he hoped to bring him back when the difficulties are straightened out -- will open doors throughout Europe and will give him entry to the European market.
There are a number of other young Americans around the league who are in contract negotiations. Some, such as Coloradoís Adin Brown and the MetroStarsí Clint Mathis have been signed to new longer deals. But it is an open question as to whether those offers were made so as to be able to keep the players, or whether they were made to get them under long-term contracts to be able to get transfer fees if they want to bolt to European clubs.
In the next two months, it will be interesting to see what the league does about signing a number of its better young Americans. It has already lost Razov, and looks ready to lose Olsen if Forest can afford to buy him. Credibility with many of its fans will be at stake as they wait to see if the owners will try to keep the best Americans, or become a development and retirement league where young players go for their first training, and older players try to extend their careers past their prime.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
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Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..