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It Seems To Me . . .

MLS quality of play could sink with top players defecting for better deals.

By Robert Wagman

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, February 11, 2000) -- In the last few days, I have been reminded of something that former Major League Soccer commissioner Doug Logan used to say, something to which people did not pay a lot of attention. Logan would admit that once MLS began operating normally, each year it would likely lose some of its best players to better paying foreign teams because MLS will not any time soon be able to match the salaries that the more established leagues around the world can and will pay. He would say the fans will have to become used to this, as this is just a fact of life in todayís world.

It is starting to happen. Over the off-season MLS has lost three of its most important goal-scorers -- Joe-Max Moore, Gio Savarese and Stern John. It has lost marquee players such the Los Angeles Galaxy's Carlos Hermosillo. It has released a number of foreign players whose salaries were far greater than their impact on the field.

The latest to go is Savarese, who scored 51 goals in 112 MLS games for the MetroStars and New England Revolution. He will initially play for Viterbese, a Serie C (third division) team in Italy. That team is owned by Luciano Gaucci, who also owns Perugia in Italy's top league, Serie A. So if Savarese does well, he will probably be playing in one of the world's best leagues shortly.

MLS received a transfer fee of about $100,000 for Savarese, who, himself, will earn a salary about five times the reported $60,000 he was making in MLS, not to mention far more should he end up playing regularly for Perugia.

Moore left New England for more money at Everton in England. Stern John left the Columbus Crew for more money at Nottingham Forest, also in England. Hermosillo, a star for Mexicoís national team, departed because he was not happy and will earn better wages sitting on a bench in the Mexican League.

As Logan was saying, this is likely to be the order of things in MLS for some time to come. MLS did move aggressively to extend the contracts of some of the younger Americans in the league. Outside of German defender Lothar Matthaeus accepting a deal to join the MetroStars, the league has not yet signed any of the big names reportedly on the verge of coming to America.

Moreover, the league has also shown it is not financially competitive in signing the best of the young Americans such as Landon Donovan, who are finding much more lucrative opportunities abroad.

MLS seems to be missing opportunities. For example, word out of Los Angeles is that MLS is hot after Mexican national team forward Jose Manuel Abundis to replace Hermosillo. He will cost a bundle. Reportedly, that is one reason the league has not been more aggressive in pursuing Iranian striker Khodadad Azzizi, who seemed to indicate $700,000 a season would be enough for him to call Los Angeles home.

There is no way, financially or competitively, that the Galaxy could be handed a front line of Abundis and Azzizi. A number of teams still have foreign allocations coming, so MLS may end up pulling off a coup and signing a quality player still in his prime. But so far the prospects of this seem to lessen with each passing week.

Where MLS will begin to get into serious trouble with its fans is if the quality of players begins to deteriorate because the league is not more aggressive in signing players who are at least as good as those who are leaving. What this comes down to is the league is simply going to have to begin loosening its purse strings more, and become more aggressive in its dealings.

Granted, just about every over-the-hill big name in Europe talks as if the United States is the promised land, much as it was in the days of the North American Soccer League. That is not what I am talking about. Signing these kinds of players will only be counter-productive. But unless a Stern John, or a Gio Savarese or a Joe-Max Moore is replaced by a quality young striker, then MLS is starting a backwards march that will be hard to reverse.

Here is one of MLS's complicated and oft-changing rules that might have escaped notice.

When MLS started, each team was allowed five foreign players on its roster. That number was reduced to four, both as a cost-saving measure and as a way to accelerate the Americanization of the sport. But now, given the changes instituted this season in the player classification system, it is at least theoretically possible for an MLS squad to field a starting 11 that does not include any Americans.

This season, the league has introduced two new player classifications "youth international" and "transitional international." Youth internationals are the foreign equivalent of Project-40 players. They will be under the age of 22, will not count towards a team's 19-man roster nor the four-player international limit, nor will their salaries count against a team's salary cap.

The transitional internationals will be foreign players who have not reached their 24th birthday during the coming season. They will count on the 19-man roster with salaries applied to the salary cap, but they will not count towards the four-player foreign limit.

The Chicago' Fireís Dema Kovalenko, Colorado Rapidís Jason Bent and Miami Fusionís Andy Williams are examples of transitional internationals.

Moreover, another change in the way foreign players are counted could have an even greater impact. Since the league was formed, the rule has been if a player had U.S. resident alien status before joining MLS, he did not count as a foreign player. D.C. United defender Carlos Llamosa, before he became a citizen last year, was an example.

Now, however, the rule has been changed to say that players acquiring resident alien status while playing in MLS, will change from a foreign to a domestic classification.

A number of players are near receiving green cards. Already the Dallas' Oscar Pareja has become a resident alien and will not count against the Burn's foreign player limit. Others like D.C. Unitedís Marco Etcheverry and Jamie Moreno, and the Los Angeles Galaxy's Mauricio Cienfuegos are expected to achieve green card status in the coming months.

Thus if a team were to have four foreign players, plus five youth and transitional internationals, and a couple of former foreign players who now are resident aliens, it is at least conceivable it could field a line-up of 11 non-U.S. citizens.

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

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