Developmental players making financial sacrifices
The most popular numbers you heard about this offseason regarding MLS salaries were of the seven-figure variety. From David Beckham's $250 million deal to the new rule nicknamed after Beckham that allows teams to sign marquee players to million-dollar contracts, all you heard about were the skilled players who would be handsomely compensated for helping take the league to a new level.
What you didn't hear much about was the players who reside several tax brackets away from the Beckhams of the world. The young players who play for the lowest of MLS salaries, for the developmental contracts that have earning wages that you would never believe a professional athlete would make.
The salary figures, which rest in the $12,000 to $13,500 range, were created last season when MLS increased rosters to 28 players in conjunction with the league's creation of its reserve division. The establishment of the new division meant more chances for American soccer prospects to have their chance at a pro career but it also meant these same prospects would have to make a decision on how much they would be willing to sacrifice in order to chase the dream.
So what's the appeal for young players to make the sacrifice of earning less than $14,000 a year to be developmental players in MLS? It isn't that tough to figure out. The allure of being a professional player is a strong one and for most, the sacrifice of one or two years' worth of respectable salaries in the non-soccer world in order to chase the dream is a sacrifice worth making. Some players have the financial wherewithal to handle that sacrifice, some don't even bother applying for the MLS draft because they know what sort of salaries await them, and a good number simply make the decision that the financial sacrifice is worth it for a chance at a professional career.
Former Seton Hall midfielder Teddy Niziolek had that decision to make this spring when the Columbus Crew offered him a developmental contract after drafting him in the final round of the 2007 supplemental draft. He played well enough in training camp to earn a developmental contract offer but decided that the financial sacrifice he would make to accept that contract would put too much of a strain on him and his family. Niziolek requested a trade to the Red Bulls because playing for his hometown club would have made playing for a developmental salary more palatable. The Red Bulls are interested in his services and have made a series of trade offers to Columbus, but the Crew has rejected every one, in part because Columbus coach Sigi Schmid rates Niziolek as a solid prospect worth considerably more than the fourth-round supplemental draft pick the Crew used to acquire him. As a result, Niziolek's professional career is in limbo while he completes his course work at Seton Hall before he heads to Europe this summer in search of a pro contract.
Why should we care about a player who only drew enough interest from MLS teams to be taken in the final round of the supplemental draft? You should care because his situation illustrates some very real flaws in the league's current system. The most obvious problem is the low wages offered to developmental players, but that situation isn't likely to be remedied for some time, at least not until every team in the league is in a position to invest more money into salaries.
What the league needs to consider is eliminating the supplemental draft altogether. Why give teams the exclusive rights to players they are only willing to pay such meager salaries? Should a player from New York be forced to move to Los Angeles and play for less than $14,000 in order to keep his hopes of a professional career alive?
In an ideal world, MLS clubs would simply trade away players who weren't willing to make that financial sacrifice, but an unhealthy precedent could be set there as well if that took place. In theory, players could begin to simply request trades to teams they would prefer to play for, even if not for financial reasons. It would certainly make for a nicer story if teams such as the Crew would simply accommodate a player like Niziolek by trading them, but under the current system the Crew is well within its right to refuse to trade Niziolek for a deal they consider less than fair.
This would be remedied rather simply by doing away with the very draft that binds players to clubs they may not be able to afford to play for. MLS should take a page from the NFL playbook. The NFL's guidelines are simple. If a drafted player goes unsigned and doesn't play professionally anywhere else, they go into the next year's draft. This same approach is used by the NBA and Major League Baseball. Currently, MLS draftees don't even have the option of sitting out a year. The MLS rule gives teams rights to players they draft for two full seasons.
If the league won't eliminate the draft, or at least reduce the number of years that teams have rights to drafted players to just one year, MLS might consider some sort of free-agent and compensation structure that would allow a player taken in the supplemental draft to sign with a different team. But the rule would also have to compensate the original drafting team based on what the drafted player does for his new team.
Considering the sacrifice developmental players already make to play in MLS, the league might consider trying to find more ways to accommodate these players rather than maintaining rules that force them to make the kind of decision Niziolek made. With further MLS expansion on the way, the league needs to be attracting more players to consider MLS rather than maintaining rules that could drive some quality prospects away.
It was a rather rough opening week for some of the so-called power teams in MLS. D.C. United was punished for its Champions Cup hangover, New England got a glimpse of what life might be like without Shalrie Joseph and the defending champion Dynamo had to scrap for a tie against the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Early observations from the first week? Credit to Fernando Clavijo for fielding what looked like a pretty impressive starting 11 against D.C. United. If the Rapids can play that brand of attacking soccer all season, they won't have much trouble putting fans in the seats at their new stadium.
Not many people were expecting me to do too well picking games in Week 1, so it wasn't too much of a surprise that I managed just one correct pick in the first group of games. To be fair, my selections fared much better (4-2) when I made them on my blog on Saturday. Yes, an extra two days of information can help that much.
What should you watch for in Week 2? The Curt Onalfo era begins in K.C. as the Wizards open their season against an angry D.C. United. Toronto FC fans will be looking to make the 550-mile trek to Gillette Stadium to see their new team play for the first time.
Columbus Crew at Real Salt Lake
It would be tough to find two goalkeepers coming off more different performances. The Crew's Andy Gruenebaum was stellar in shutting out the Red Bulls last weekend while Nick Rimando must still be having nightmares about his costly blunder against FC Dallas. Columbus played a strong second half against New York and will look to test RSL's suspect defense, but it may not be enough to match what should be a good matchup for Jeff Cunningham against a slow Crew back line. Cunningham burns his old club as Real Salt Lake registers its first win of the season. Real Salt Lake 2, Crew 0
Kansas City Wizards at D.C. United
You can find plenty of excuses for why D.C. looked so bad in its season opener, the Champions Cup hangover and Colorado opening its new stadium chief among them, but D.C. is too good to have another performance like last week's. K.C. answered its need for a playmaker by signing Argentine playmaker Carlos Marinelli, but he won't be joining the team just yet. That means the Wizards will have to rely on Eddie ''The Scoring Drought'' Johnson, who will have his chances against a surprisingly suspect D.C. defense. The Luciano Emilio-Jimmy Conrad matchup will be fun to watch but look for Christian Gomez to deliver the win at RFK. D.C. United 1, Wizards 0
Toronto FC at New England Revolution
Toronto had a rough baptism last week against Chivas USA but will get its first taste of fan support when it travels to Gillette Stadium, where Toronto FC fans are expected to travel to see their new team. Will that be enough to beat the Revs on the road? Don't bet on it. New England will be without Michael Parkhurst, who is still out, but Shalrie Joseph and Pat Noonan look set to return to the starting lineup. Taylor Twellman schools Toronto's shaky defense while the Canadians find the net for the first time. Revolution 3, Toronto FC 1
Chivas USA at Houston Dynamo
Talk about a drastic jump in competition. Chivas USA ran roughshod over the newcomers from Toronto last week but will now face a fierce Houston defense that is even tougher at home. The Dynamo has had a chance to fully recover from that wild Champions Cup semifinal loss to Pachuca and should bounce back strongly with its first win of the season as Brian Ching terrorizes the Goats yet again. Dynamo 2, Chivas USA 1.
FC Dallas at New York Red Bulls
The Hoops are enjoying a strong start to the season, posting four points from two matches despite not having outplayed the competition in either match. What is clear about FC Dallas is that its attack will keep pressure on opponents, which should happen against the Red Bulls. Bruce Arena's men will need Claudio Reyna to recover from a badly bruised left leg in order to have a chance at winning their home opener. The Red Bulls finally find the net but FC Dallas steals another road point and remains unbeaten. Red Bulls 1, FC Dallas 1.
Last week's record: 1-2-3
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.