By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 21, 2014) US Soccer Players - The new New York Cosmos are not just a legacy name trying to recapture old glory in their corner of Gotham’s metropolitan area. They’re also a new wrinkle that threatens the status quo of de facto MLS predominance in the American soccer sphere. Andre Lewis is here to remind you. Rather, Andre Lewis’s contract with the Cosmos, and the strange controversy that erupted around his status as a Vancouver Whitecaps SuperDraft pick is here to remind you.
The background goes something like this: Lewis, a 19-year old member of Jamaica’s U-20 National Team setup, wowed coaches with his performance at the MLS player combine two weeks ago in Ft. Lauderdale. Despite his slight stature, Lewis emerged from the combine as a potential top SuperDraft pick thanks to his toughness and ability on the ball. Sure enough, when the SuperDraft came around last Thursday, the Vancouver Whitecaps chose Lewis with the seventh pick of the first round. Lewis was the first international player and first non-collegiate player taken, a testament to his talent and his ability to show it in the short window of the Florida showcase.
For most draftees, that’s all there is. In fact, most draftees already have a signed deal with MLS before hearing their name at the SuperDraft.
Lewis’s story quickly moved into the unusual. After Goal’s Ives Galarcep reported that Lewis was in fact already signed to a professional contract with the Cosmos, fingers of blame shot out in all directions. Questions pertaining to Lewis’s contract status, and who was informed of what, when (apparently Lewis signed with the Cosmos after his combine performance but before the MLS SuperDraft) dominated the post-draft discussion. On the back of Vancouver’s contest of wills with Camilo, it was easy to suspect the Whitecaps failed in some way, spending a precious draft pick on a player who might never suit up for them.
For what it’s worth, Lewis tweeted several excited statements in the hours after the Whitecaps selected him. He made no mention of the Cosmos or gave any reason to believe he wasn’t going to join Vancouver.
Because we don’t know what conversations may have taken place with the Cosmos before the draft, if any, it’s hard to know if the “resolution” presented by MLS is anything more than face-saving spin. A league statement indicates that Lewis will head into pre-season training with Vancouver and remain with the club through an agreement with the Cosmos should Vancouver decide to keep him. Whether that proves to be a loan or a sale is unclear, as is who will incur the cost of any transfer should Lewis’s contract move from the NASL club to Major League Soccer’s centralized system. If the Whitecaps truly didn’t know what they were getting into by drafting Lewis (a distinct possibility), then the league is responsible for correcting the problem.
If the Cosmos decide to deal with MLS at all.
MLS could have removed Lewis from the draft eligible list upon learning of his contract status with the Cosmos, preventing this very situation. One can’t help but wonder if they hesitated to do so because it was the Cosmos, specifically, that signed the Jamaican prospect under their nose. The other alternative is that they, too, were unaware of his status until the news broke post-draft.
Neither paints MLS in a positive light during an off-season already rife with bad PR for the league.
That it was the Cosmos who signed Lewis first, the Cosmos who stands to benefit from the confusion, and the Cosmos who represent the single club outside of MLS that could threaten the status quo makes the Lewis situation more interesting than a simple example of administrative failure. While the new version of America’s most famous soccer club is a far cry from the Pele-led gaggle of stars that lit up New York in the 70s, the modern Cosmos do have a certain pull and the backing of a deep-pocketed owner. If the NASL version decides to inject itself into areas where Major League Soccer has long had free reign, the landscape of American soccer will be very interesting.
The Cosmos landed in NASL in part because they claimed a desire to avoid MLS rules. In the NASL, the Cosmos can spend as much as they’d like on players (though it’s worth noting that doing so is already creating hostility within their own league) and at the same time undermine the careful salary structure in place in North America’s top division.
Is the Lewis signing a warning shot for Major League Soccer? Despite their place in the second division, the Cosmos’s cache and spending power might allow them to siphon off a handful of young MLS targets from year-to-year. No other lower division team has been able to both overcome their status in the country’s soccer league hierarchy and pay the same wages MLS could offer. Perhaps Lewis is special in his choice, but his decision highlights a basic point.
Remember: The NASL is not beholden in any way to Major League Soccer’s SuperDraft. Also important as part of the Lewis saga: The midfielder trained and traveled with the Cosmos in 2013 long before signing a contract.
It’s too soon to know what any of this means. If the Cosmos truly has no desire to join MLS in the near to mid-range future, challenging Major League Soccer on the player market could not only bring them notoriety, but create fissures in a business model they have outwardly rejected. In the unlikely event that signing Lewis (or, more broadly, competing with MLS for players like Lewis) is part of a long game that ends with the Cosmos in the top division but able to flex their financial muscle more freely, sewing those seeds of doubt makes a modicum of sense.
MLS has lost talented young players to Scandinavia’s larger salaries and proximity to Europe’s big leagues in the past, and has worked to reverse the trend. It has rarely faced a challenge for the top talent in the U.S., Canada, or the Caribbean from clubs in its own backyard.
Lewis is Jamaican and did not go through the U.S. college system. For that reason, perhaps he’s indicative of very little since he occupies a space between the college players and players already signed to a Generation adidas deal.
The contract situation of Andre Lewis could very well be a one-off exception to the general rule that MLS gets the best young players when it wants them. Whatever the future of the SuperDraft, MLS figures to remain the choice destination for players looking to start their pro careers from outside of the growing academy system because it has the teams, the profile, and the cash.
The Cosmos are one team with limited roster room. They also have the name and enough cash of their own to offer a domestic alternative to MLS player acquisition.
Editor's Note: On Tuesday afternoon, the NY Cosmos announced they would loan Lewis to Vancouver for the 2014 MLS season.
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