Young Men, Come Play In MLS For Peanuts

By Ian Plenderleith

When the international transfer window re-opens, so does the debate about whether or not it’s beneficial for US players to move abroad. The arguments are as follows, depending on which league they might be moving to, and in which godforsaken synthetic MLS market they’re currently struggling to motivate themselves (otherwise known as The Taylor Twellman Dilemma):

Yes, of course it’s a good thing, because the players earn more money, they gain experience of a different playing culture and a higher standard of sport, and it’s an opportunity to travel and learn that no young man should turn down.

Or: No, it’s not worth their while to go all that way to sit on the bench or play in the reserves of a major team, or in some frigid Nordic league that no one pays any attention to (sorry, Scotland). All the while they’re homesick and losing both their confidence and their chance to play on the National Team because they’re off Bob Bradley’s radar.

When you ask the players themselves about moving to Europe, however, those who have never played there say with certainty, and almost without exception, that they want to go and at least give it a try. Many pack up and go anyway, without an offer (otherwise known as The Awe-Inspiring Odyssey Of Jay DeMerit). Although better money is a factor, with many players you get the impression that it would not necessarily be the main reason. They know there’s a world beyond MLS where the crowds roar and the newspapers care, and they want to taste it for themselves.

Still, with the terms that MLS continues to offer young players, money really is a factor. Not for reasons of greed, but survival. Happily for the aspirant pros, the January transfer window coincides with the MLS Combine and ‘Superdraft,’ and the world beyond increasingly recognizes that while the US doesn’t yet produce superstars, it does produce plenty of decent (and relatively cheap) players who know their positions well.

So while MLS is looking to bolster the league’s profile and quality by attracting bigger foreign names on massive wages, there’s still a significant talent drain in the other direction. While the combine and draft take place this week and the league’s teams cast their eyes over young US talent, the MLS Players’ Union stands by advising school and college leavers not to accept the insulting terms of the developmental contract. Young American players not offered a spot on the generation adidas program continue to think long and hard about their options. Two years in the Real Salt Lake Reserves for peanuts, or do I take a shot at the Danish second division, where at least I can order a beer and be treated like an adult?

League Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis told us unequivocally at the end of last year that the terms of the developmental player contract would not be changing until the collective bargaining agreement with the MLSPU comes up for renewal at the end of 2009. That means two more years when some of the best US youngsters could turn down the idea of continuing to live like a student in favor of being taken seriously as a professional in another country.

The league could easily have made a gesture of good will in volunteering to double the minimum developmental salary in 2008. It’s worth reiterating that last season, the total contract worth of 57 developmental players on the minimum $12,900 a year was around one ninth of David Beckham’s base guaranteed wage. At the same time, MLS front office staff have been fanning across South America all winter long to lure Latino talent because, rightly or wrongly, there’s a perceived shortfall of young US players good enough to perform in MLS.

It’s tempting to jump ahead five years to an age when the college draft may have been rendered irrelevant by the nascent club academy system, and when a new CBA will have consigned the developmental salaries to the same historical trashcan as slavery. Maybe more Hispanic players, both home-produced and imported, will be producing a more positive style of play in an expanded league of burgeoning popularity that looks just as attractive to the best young US players as the leagues abroad.

Even given that ideal scenario, they will still have good reason to look to Europe for money and experience. In the meantime, however, the league should pay more than lip service to its contention that it cares about MLS as a proving ground for homegrown talent by ceasing to treat the draft and the combine as a cattle market for cheap labor.

One Response to Young Men, Come Play In MLS For Peanuts

  1. Paul says:

    So true Ian, thanks for the interesting opinion piece. I personally am anxious to see what the MLSPU will be able to accomplish in this realm. These youngsters have no bargaining power with the single entity (its almost communist). Come 2009 the league will need to seriously UP its base entry salaries and overall cap. Right now (and in the past) the middle and bottom roster spots get absolutely abused.

    It’s a shame that starters are forced to jump to Europe at this expense, because they cannot get a legitimate raise (i.e. a $60,000 guy wants and deserves $100,000), MLS holds the theory, “nope your replacable, we’ll save that $40,000″…what they fail to realize is what they are saving in $$$, they are losing in perception. You would think they understand that concept better! That line of thinking will only work so far until the league starts going backwards in terms of talent and credibility. I understand they need to do this to keep costs down so the MLS doesn’t turn into the NASL, but certainly this adds to why so many people perceive the league to be “Mickey Mouse”.