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It Seems To Me . . .
MLS policies appear to favor parity over quality.By Robert Wagman
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, March 30, 2000) -- Recently Jeff Bradley writing in ESPN The Magazine said something that not only struck a chord with me, but which bears repeating. Talking about Major League Soccer's convoluted and often-changing allocation system, Jeff wrote "the league is more worried about parity than quality."
He is, of course, absolutely correct. What caused Jeff to write this was the farce of the Hristo Stoitchkov's acquisition by the Chicago Fire. The Fire got its man, but to do so had to trade a handful of future draft choices to the San Jose Earthquakes to get a "minor allocation" from San Jose which it then could use to sign Stoitchkov. But then his salary put then over the salary cap, so the teamís only option was to trade away defender Francis Okaroh.
Obviously anyone who has followed D.C. United the past four years can cite chapter and verse of having to dump players to stay under the salary cap, even though the cap problems have come not because expensive new players have been signed, but current players had to be granted performance-based raises.
Single-entity ownership and the salary cap are means to stabilize the league's budget and to protect the owners from themselves (so they don't get into bidding wars over players). But more than that they are a means to try to establish parity in the league.
Don't get me wrong, parity is not a bad thing. Look at the farce that Major League Baseball has become where small-market teams know before the season starts that baring some kind of divine intercession they have no chance of seeing the World Series except on television. My problem is how MLS is trying to accomplish parity.
Both the National Football League and the National Basketball Association have various policies in place to try to foster parity. But they do so by trying to strengthen the weaker teams to bring them to the level of the strongest.
MLS also tries to strengthen the bottom dwellers, but the way the salary cap is administered, it also very overtly tries to weaken the top clubs. The league seems to want everyone to meet in a kind of a mediocre middle.
Some days I think what MLS wants is a year in which all 12 clubs finish 16-16 (or maybe now since we have ties, all finish 0-0-32). I found it amusing to watch MLS officials extol the league when D.C. United defeated Brazil's Vasco de Gama two years ago for the InterAmerican Cup club championship, and then wring their hands after both United and Chicago were eliminated last September in the CONCACAF club championship in Las Vegas. I'm sorry. What do they expect if their better teams lose a couple of their better players each year.
Jeff Bradley's point was that yes, Chicago got Stoitchkov. But then it was forced to give up possibly its best defender and to trade away it future in draft choices. This left the Miami Fusion, where Okaroh ended up, better off. It probably will make San Jose better. The god Parity has again been served. But is MLS really better off?
Recently I saw where United States national team coach Bruce Arena wrote about Americans playing aboard, and whether it is a positive thing for their development, and for the growth of the national team program.
Looking at those players who are not starting for European clubs, players such Tony Sanneh at Hertha Berlin and Frankie Hedjuk at Bayer Leverkusen, Arena wrote, "From my perspective, it will be increasingly difficult to rely on players who rarely get a game with their club team. Therefore, the dilemma exists. A number of these players are in a great soccer environment, but canít get a game."
Earlier this year, I got Brad Fridel angry at me when I asked him if the situation he found himself in at Liverpool wasn't frustrating, and whether he would not be better off playing back here in MLS. Did he regret going in any way, I asked.
Let's put money aside for the moment. I understand that if British newspaper reports are correct, and who knows if they are, Friedel is making more money sitting on Liverpool's bench than the total salary cap of any MLS team. I was interested in the answer in terms of what Brad thought about his own development, and that of other American players in similar circumstances with other European clubs.
"You know I'm not sitting over there on my butt doing nothing," a clearly annoyed Friedel shot back. "Everyday I practice and scrimmage against some of the best players in the world. Once a week I play a reserve match where the quality of play is much higher than it is in MLS. I work hard every day. I am in the best shape of my life. I have never played better."
Friedel's situation may be different from Sanneh's and Hedjuk's, and certainly was different from Jovan Kirovski and David Regis who have not been playing at all. But it does renew the argument about whether a player is better off to be a star in MLS, or a benchwarmer in a Premier League in Europe, or playing in a lower division player over there.
It may be a question of diminishing returns. In the past, Sanneh has said what a positive experience going to Berlin has been, and he is not talking money. "I have learned a lot about soccer since I have been over there," Sanneh said. "I have learned to play with a lot more pace, I have learned to play better defense. I have learned to play a specific role and not to worry about what other people are doing. I am a better player today than I was when I left D.C. United."
But again it might be a question of diminishing returns. One of Sanneh's problems is that he remains Hertha's 15th or 16th or 17th player, depending on who dresses. Occasionally he sees action as a second-half substitute. But since he does dress and has to be available to play with the full squad, he often does not play in reserve matches because they conflict with the crowded first team's schedule of Bundesliga play and Champions League matches.
So in Sanneh's case, he may now feel himself to be a more skilled player than he was two years ago, but is he losing match fitness to the point he cannot be counted on for the U.S. We may find that out on April 26 in Moscow. Sanneh, if he is not injured (and he has been off and on all year) will play in the match against Russia.
Match fitness is subjective. Regis, who in effect has been feuding with his French club Metz, has not played a competitive match at any level, full team or reserve, since November. Yet he came into the U.S. camp in Birmingham, Ala., before the Tunisia match in good shape and played a strong 90 minutes.
So the debate will continue. Obviously for many players the pay in Europe is much better than in MLS. Marcus Hahnemann is a walking testament to that. Or perhaps I should say sitting testament in that he is making considerably more sitting on Fulham's bench than he ever could have made in MLS.
But Bruce Arena is making it clear that for national-team duty he is going to look for match sharpness in a player. That means that a number of national team hopefuls are likely going to have to reevaluate their situations at the end of the current European season.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly
on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..