Don Garber that MLS’s current philosophy of being a buying league had become “unsustainable.” (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
In his state of the league address a day prior to MLS Cup in Atlanta Dec. 7, MLS commissioner Don Garber turned heads and made headlines by saying his circuit must become a selling league. He said that the league’s mechanisms of Designated Player and Target Allocation Money and huge investment in academies and training facilities were “unsustainable” if teams don’t get a return for their investment.
Many MLS academy standouts have been journeying to Europe after the age of 18 as they can sign with Euro team for nothing — and nothing in return to MLS sides.
“This is a big issue for our league,” Garber said. “While I don’t know that it’s entirely about young players chasing their dreams as much as it’s international clubs chasing our young players. That’s something that we’ve got to wrap our collective minds around and figure out how do we manage that in a way that justifies our owners investing this year north of $100 million outside of our first-team rosters. “We are not, as a country, participants in solidarity and training competition. I think that probably has to change. We have to find a way that if that’s going to happen, how do we at least get compensated for it. I don’t know how we can justify making the kind of investments we’ve been making.
“I will say our view about this whole area is very, very different than it was two, three, four or five years ago. I think the product that we’re developing has become some of the most important assets that we need to start figuring out ways that we’re either protecting or we’re finding ways to get compensated for if we can’t protect them or sign them.
“We need to become more of a selling league. Some of you I have long, close relationships with. As a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I’ve always believed that you needed to have the players that resonated in your market to be those that could be aspirations for young kids who are peeking through the fence when they see them train. We all need to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold. I reviewed a whole list of them over the last couple of days. Those countries, they don’t need to worry about building a league, the league is already built.”
Well, as it turns out, I was just a few years ahead of my time. A little more than 18 years ago, I wrote a column about how Major League Soccer should be selling players to foreign teams in a column for CNNSI.com on Sept. 22, 2000.
And one last thing: take a look at the last section in which I make a prediction on the 2000 Olympic semifinals. They are eeriely spot on, predicting the U.S. men would get past Japan in the quarterfinals via penalty kicks and reach the medal round (which they did) and that the American women would lose to either Norway or Germany in the final (which they did to the former) and take home the silver medal.
Used with permission from Sports Illustrated
By Michael Lewis
ADELAIDE, Australia — After dispatching Kuwait to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in Olympic history earlier this week, several American men’s soccer players credited Major League Soccer for allowing the players to develop so they could compete in what is essentially an under-23 tournament.
There is little doubt MLS has allowed a number of promising young players such as Chicago Fire forward Josh Wolff — who helped set up two goals in the 3-1 victory over Kuwait — and L.A. Galaxy rookie defender Dan Califf, who has been a backline standout, to grow and blossom.
Goalkeeper Brad Friedel was a starter on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, which included only two professional players and college boys. That side finished 1-1-1 and missed reaching the quarterfinals by a goal.
“I guess in ’92 we were in a little naive,” Friedel said. “It was the first time for all of us. I thought we did very well. If we were professionals back then, we would have scored the extra goal and gotten through. It’s a fine line between going through and not going through.”
So is success in the World Cup, whether it is reaching soccer’s promised land on a consistent basis or excelling in the tournament, where a country’s rewards — monetary and otherwise — are greater, and reputation is on the line.
As important MLS has been in the progress of many players on the U-23 national team, it eventually will have to come to the realization that it will lose many of its best players to European clubs, for the sake of American soccer and the national team.
Like it or not, the league will have to consider itself a springboard, a middle man, so to speak, for the best American players.
“I don’t think we would have gotten here without a domestic league, to get these players at this stage of the game,” said veteran defender Jeff Agoos, who plies his trade with MLS club D.C. United. “Saying that, we have guys on this team who are basically playing at the same level as most of the guys in the rest of the world and making one-eighth or one-twentieth of their salary.
“While it’s important to have a domestic league, especially for the young kids, it’s important to keep them there. MLS will have to step up and do something to keep them there.”
At this juncture in its history, the league cannot offer the top American players the challenges, obstacles and surprises — and in many cases, the money — they need to bring their game the next level so the national team can follow suit. Only a few players can live and prosper in the domestic league, especially with all the money that is being dangled in front of them elsewhere these days.
If you need convincing about the European experience, just look at the lineup that coach Bruce Arena used for the 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Guatemala earlier this month. Nine of the 11 starters play for European clubs: Goalkeeper Kasey Keller (Rayo Vallecano, Spain). Defenders — Gregg Berhalter (Cambuur Leeuwarden, Netherlands, but currently shopping himself in the European market), Tony Sanneh (Hertha Berlin, Germany), David Regis (FC Metz, France). Midfielders — Earnie Stewart (NAC Breda, Netherlands), John O’Brien (Ajax, Netherlands), Claudio Reyna (Rangers, Scotland), Jovan Kirovski (Sporting Lisbon, Portugal). Forward — Joe-Max Moore (Everton, England).
The only two aberrations were defender Eddie Pope (United, MLS) and forward Brian McBride (Columbus Crew), who happens to be playing on loan with Preston North End in the English First Division these days.
Before you think MLS will be gutted of its top American players and that there might be a mass exodus next week, think again. Playing overseas is not necessarily for every player, and even many of the national teams starters listed above struggle greatly for playing time.
Some players might not be ready to play abroad.
Others have put in their feet to test out the international players as loan players, such as McBride, who plans to return to MLS in the spring. It’s not the first time for McBride, who returned to play in MLS in 1996 from Wolfsburg in Germany.
Others might not want to go, at least not sacrificing several years. Fire and national team midfielder Chris Armas, who will celebrate his first wedding anniversary in December, recently signed a long-term deal with the league and is happy performing domestically — at least at the moment.
And it certainly wouldn’t be the end of the world for MLS to be the middle man in player deals. Actually, the league can profit from it, as do numerous other second-tier leagues worldwide. Sell the contract of a promising, young American player for several million dollars and use that money to either invest in harvesting the next generation of young talent or to bring in a special foreign player. By the time this American wants to return home, his transfer could be virtually nothing, depending on how the European transfer system continues to evolve. (That’s another column altogether.)
Think of it. In the long run, everyone is a winner.
MLS is helped financially and its reputation as a feeder league to Europe is enhanced as scouts search for more American players.
So are the promising young players who need to stretch their soccer skills to the limit and face new challenges.
The national coach has better pool of players from which to choose. Barring a blind referee or two in Costa Rica, that should translate into an improved and more competitive national side and stronger World Cup finishes (and the last-place finish at France ’98 becomes only a bitter memory).
If the American men continue to progress and impress down under, don’t be stunned if several European clubs come knocking at MLS’s doors, and not just for the Olympic team players.
Olympic gut feeling No. 1
On Saturday, the American men will somehow find a way to get past a tough Japanese side by outlasting the Asians in penalty kicks, 5-4, after playing to a 1-1 draw to reach the medal round. They then will lose to Italy in the semifinals 1-0, but will take the bronze medal, outlasting a beleaguered Brazilian side in PKs 4-3. Yeah, I know it’s a long shot and I’m going more with my heart than my mind, but we can all dream, can’t we?
Olympic gut feeling No. 2
On Sunday, the U.S. women will get past Brazil, which still has too many defensive liabilities, 3-1. I will stick with my original prediction that the women will take home the silver, regardless who they meet in the semis — Norway or Germany. Final score: 2-1, the other guys. Sorry, I mean gals.
Story used with permission from Sports Illustrated