Major League Soccer wants to loosen its purse strings. No, there is no avalanche of money about to pour in and deliver the Ronaldinhos of the world. The league simply wants to establish a leaguewide mechanism that would allow every team to use a large (by MLS standards) chunk of money to attract and sign new talent that previously might have been out of the league's price range.
Fans who endured the league's disappointing signings of Luis Hernandez and Lothar Matthaeus immediately clutched their stomachs and cringed at the thought of a wave of overpaid and washed-up old-timers showing up for the cash and the sightseeing opportunities. "This could spell doom for the league," wrote some concerned readers who incorrectly saw this as a complete detour from the league's long-held belief that MLS needs to be built slowly and prudently so as not to suffer the salary-driven failure of the North American Soccer League.
The reaction was understandable but misguided. MLS isn't trying to take the first step toward being a big-money league. The league simply is trying to replenish its talent pool before expansion and the retirement of a generation of key veterans leaves MLS short on high-quality players. It isn't about boosting attendance with big-name players. It is about maintaining the league's level of talent, if not increasing it.
The "David Beckham exception," which sources say would give each team $1 million to attract a marquee player or two, is necessary because the league has not done enough in the past few years to counterbalance the steady departure of the league's first generation of high-profile talent, especially foreign talent. In the works for more than a year, the exception has yet to be passed by the league's Board of Governors, but signs point to it passing eventually.
The $1 million exception has earned its nickname because of the notion that it could help pave the way for a team to go after a Beckham (who probably spends that much on hair products alone), but it's a misleading label because $1 million isn't likely to be enough to land any truly marquee international star. What the exception can do is help the league sign talented veterans -- both foreign and American -- who might otherwise be just outside the league's salary range, players who would help the league, and its teams, on the field and in the locker room.
Consider this collection of foreign stars that carried the league through its early years: Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Roberto Donadoni, Peter Nowak, Mo Johnston and Stern John. That stellar group has left MLS playing fields long ago, with three retiring, three entering the coaching ranks and one, John, continuing to ply his trade in England.
Now, try to come up with an up-to-date list of the league's best foreign players (Shalrie Joseph, who developed in the U.S., not included): Carlos Ruiz, Youri Djorkaeff, Amado Guevara, Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez, Francisco Palencia and Tyrone Marshall. Of that modest group, two are testing the waters abroad (Ruiz and Guevara) and one is pondering retirement (Djorkaeff) and appears unlikely to play in MLS beyond 2006. Ivan Guerrero and Juan Pablo Garcia are quality young stars in the making, but their arrivals are hardly enough to replenish the supply of foreign talent -- which is insufficient -- especially when you consider that another round of expansion is on the horizon.
It isn't just about talent but also about leadership and attracting the type of foreign veterans who can lead and anchor teams. Clubs such as Chicago (Nowak), D.C. (Etcheverry) and Los Angeles (Cienfuegos) forever will be indebted to those players, who set a standard and helped serve as role models for a generation of young American players.
Teams conceivably also could look to attract highly rated young prospects who would attempt to use MLS as a springboard to a larger league, which is how MLS attracted the likes of Ruiz and Garcia, although the price for hot prospects continues to skyrocket as rich teams continue to stockpile talent. Then there are players -- like Damani Ralph and John -- who have left MLS for Europe but might be interested in returning to the league if there were salaries comparable to what they could receive abroad.
As long as MLS focuses on seeking out veteran players who can elevate the play of their teammates, as well as provide a level of skill lacking in the American player pool, the $1 million exception can be a success. If MLS teams misuse the exception and make the mistake of believing they should accept any foreign player with a flashy name and reputation, you could see more Matthaeus-like failures.
The exception doesn't have to be used just to target foreign players. There are a number of European-based Americans who could be drawn to return home if MLS could compete with foreign salaries. Kasey Keller, Claudio Reyna, John O'Brien and Gregg Berhalter have expressed interest in playing in MLS one day, and they all could be enticed to come home a bit sooner if MLS could offer salaries competitive with what European teams are offering them. What the league needs to ensure is that it isn't overpaying for foreign-based American players, which has to be a concern after MLS inexplicably gave Clint Mathis and Tony Sanneh a combined $775,000 in salary last year.
The $1 million exception is really not a new concept for MLS considering the Los Angeles Galaxy already has won a title thanks to $900,000 player Landon Donovan and FC Dallas retained Eddie Johnson, for now, by signing him to an $875,000 contract. Chivas also has benefited because the Goats are paying Palencia, Garcia and Ramon Ramirez salaries well above the league "maximum" of $280,000. Establishing a mechanism any team can use could help teams lacking star power, such as Columbus and Colorado, while also allowing fiscally prudent yet successful teams like the New England Revolution to add the type of player that could turn them into a champion.
The reality of world soccer is that money talks, and with larger European leagues being able to spend large sums of money on fringe players -- and new markets such as Russia and Qatar emerging as new destinations for older players seeking big paydays -- it has become more and more unrealistic to believe MLS could compete for new talent while continuing to operate on its relatively minuscule salary budget.
Some will ask why these funds can't go into paying the players who already are sacrificing for MLS, players who are living their dreams on wages that, in some cases, are absurdly low. That issue does need to be addressed, but it isn't likely to be addressed until the league has turned the corner and moved from money-losing operation to money-making operation.
Call the exception a primer for things to come once more teams build their own stadiums and create their own revenue streams. As more stars retire or simply leave MLS, and more expansion teams prepare to come aboard, MLS will have no choice but to open its wallet and make a serious attempt at replenishing its talent coffers, which are in need of new blood as the league heads into its second decade.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.