Monday, July 28, 2008

MLS Expansion: The Problem of Player Depth

Fox Soccer channel's Bobby McMahon opines on MLS' expansion plans for 2011 and beyond. With 16 teams (counting Seattle (2009) and Philly(2010)), MLS is looking at a couple more cities in 2011. While the list "officially" contains Montreal, Vancouver, and Ottawa(?!!) in Canada and St. Louis, New York City, Portland, Atlanta and Las Vegas (?!!) are listed among U.S. hopefuls. I will have more on the candidates themselves later.

But McMahon brought up a real challenge for the MLS in terms of players.
But perhaps a greater challenge relates to the product – the talent pool and in particular North American talent. With over 50% of an MLS team’s roster coming from domestic sources the youth, academy and college systems will need to pump out an unprecedented number of players otherwise the on-field product is going to suffer.

The production of players who can perform at the top level is not something that can just be turned on at a spigot. The MLS problem is compounded when you consider the consistent exodus of some of the best American and Canadian players to European leagues.

With the salary cap as it is, the best North American-born players can make more money playing for average teams in second tier leagues in Europe let alone the bounty that might be available should they make it to any of the top flights.
The current collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2009 season. So the Philly franchise and the future expansion clubs will be subject to a new CBA. So that leads to the question, is the MLS and the owners going to start paying competitive wages to its core squad players?

As McMahon pointed out, many youngsters and not quite college grads can go to Europe in particular, but potentially Asia/Australia and Mexico and make a pretty good living as a soccer, better than they could here in teh states playing for the MLS. For 2009, the minimum salary for senior players (i.e. not development players) will be $34,000 per year. Development players will make $1,175 per month, which assuming they are with the club the entire year, their salary would be $14,100 per year. Senior development players 2009 salary is $1,75 per month, or $18,900 per month. This might be good money for some 16 year old kid working at McDonald's but it pathetic for a major sports league, particularly since, given the depth of the average MLS squad, means that most senior development players and quite a few development players will see first team action in any given season.

McMahon is right, a number of players can go to Europe and play in lesser leagues, like Austria, Ireland, Scandanavian countries or play in lower divisions, i.e. second or third divisions, and make $50,000 or more with much more of a chance to move into the upper reaches with hard work and good performances. The same cannot be said for a development player, who usually must take a second job or live in someone's basement to make ends meet.

In order for the MLS to maintain its expansion and keep players in the states, they are going to have to radically ramp up their salaries, with developmental players in the range of $30-40,000 and senior players with a minimum of $65-75,000 per year if they want to have any hope of holding on to players and allow them to develop the game in this country.

I think the quality of play in the MLS is, right now, on par with the middle ranges of the the Coca-Cola Championship in England or Serie B in Italy or Bundesliga 2 in Germany. On any given day, I think a MLS club can compete with the lower teams in the top European leagues, but not over the course of a 38 game season. I think MLS Comissioner Don Garber and the owners would like to have a league that is considered of a good quality internationally, but that cannot happen if you pay poverty wages (comparatively) to your average squad player. These guys can go overseas and be squad players for much more money.

In any given year, the top MLS players will be looked at by overseas clubs. That is a given and that is the nature of the player market. But if we want to see real transfer fee money coming to the MLS, we need to develop the league's level of play and that means getting the top American player prospects playing in this country. (it also requires other things like better quality coaching and for goodness sakes a real soccer field to play on, but that is another post as well).

So the question is, if Garber and company are going to expand MLS, is the CBA renegotiation going to include massive pay increases? I certainly hope so.

No comments: