By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (May 11, 2012) US Soccer Players -- In February, San Jose announced that they had signed forward Chris Wondolowski to a new contract. As always in MLS, the monetary terms weren't disclosed. The length of the deal, however, was made public. Wondolowski will be with the Quakes through 2016. Later this season, the MLS Players Union will release their annual player salary list and we'll get to see the difference between what Wondolowski made last season ($175k) and his new deal. What we already know is that Wondolowski isn't a designated player, so his salary remains within the regular cap.
Fans that value goals might be forgiven for asking a very simple question. Can they give Chris Wondolowski a Designated Player contract already? The scoring machine in San Jose has already shown this season that once again he is a rare commodity in Major League Soccer. A conduit of offense, and by his current pace, potentially a record breaking one. With 11 goals through ten games, Wondolowski is on a tear, surpassing the injured Thierry Henry as the League's top goal scorer.
Since the 2010 season, Wondolowski has scored a total of 45 goals and led the League in that category in each season. He has surpassed all other strikers in MLS, and his recent National Team call-ups have restated the obvious: the man is special.
Yet, if by luck or curse, he plays in a League with not only limited funds, but a limited spending mentality and an even bigger aversion to free agency. It doesn't help matters that he plays for the MLS version of a small-market club, one that plays in the smallest stadium in the League. Then there's the broader MLS idea that when you spend, you spend on talent from other leagues.
The central villain in our story is Major League Soccer's response to free agency. In the formative stages, this was a league designed so clubs wouldn't compete with each other for contracts. Even with designated player exemptions, discovery players, and increased cap space, and occasionally paying a transfer fee, free agency is something for other leagues. Without that, a player like Wondolowski can't shop his services at the end of a contract. Far from it. Under MLS's archaic contract system, the reserve clause remains in play. Wondolowski is tied to the Quakes until they choose to move him to another club. San Jose will never face the scenario common to other sports where they'll need to compete on contract terms with their MLS rivals.
MLS has done a lot of work in recent seasons to move away from their reputation as a sports business model as much as a soccer league. They've never talked about money, yet they've managed to sell fans on cap discussions and what their team may or may not be able to do in the broader marketplace while still keeping the central tenant of single-entity in place. That non-competitive model means players already in MLS need demand from outside the League to change their situation.
The tightly controlled walled garden that is MLS doesn't mean a team can't choose to reward a franchise player. That happens, and it's not necessarily the big teams with larger budgets making that choice. Shalrie Joseph is a designated player because New England recognized his value to them. Again, in isolation they chose to reward their player. DC United didn't, with their most impactful player and league MVP Dwayne De Rosario not at the top of their pay scale.
The only two Americans currently on designated player contracts are Landon Donovan for obvious reasons and Brek Shea because Dallas wanted to keep him rather than see him sign with an overseas club. Where does that leave players like Wondolowski? For the most part in check, held down monetarily, and without much sway as to their actual worth. Bidding wars between teams, jostling for the services a potent striker, won't happen any time soon.
San Jose is its own island for his services, negotiating with Wondolowski and his agent but well aware they'll face no pressure from any of the other teams in the League. Since 1996, this has created a skewed playing field where value becomes difficult to assess. To Wondolowski's credit, he makes it easy. He scores goals when other players, some costing their clubs considerably more, don't.
Wondolowski met his burden of proof. He's a striker that scores more than anybody else. Yet he's caught in a system where value will always be relative to a single club. It's not a new problem for career MLS players who lack the international flair to force a better deal. Even then, players that leave the League, prove themselves elsewhere, and then return aren't necessarily treated with the same status as other international players signing on with MLS. Domestic quality, even to the scale that Wondo has reached, isn't held to the same standards
It's a free pass of sorts for those players entering the League as designated players, but one that shuts out, or even doesn't acknowledge the contributions of players created within MLS. This has developed a culture within this league that favors talent that has yet to prove itself over those that have.
Frankly, that needs to change. A balance must be met, if only to reward talent that consistently thrives in MLS. It also sets a standard for the League and its potential recruits. Showing a path from developmental or college player, through MLS success, and ultimately arriving at Designated Player status is a major statement, a recruiting tool for players to tie their futures to MLS. After all, that's what the League has said it wants. Players making the MLS choice early and sticking with it.
That's why there's a place for results oriented Designated Player contracts. There should be room for international stars in all rosters, but the scale tends to be one sided, and often players entering with the promise of that international flair don't pan out. This is a tough league, and it should reward the players that strive and ultimately succeed within it.
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