Carnival #7: Keeping the Youth At Home & Happy

Question: What should Major League Soccer (MLS) do to keep young American talent from heading to Europe?

The no-less relevant follow-up to that question is this: what can MLS do to keep young American talent from heading to Europe?

With that, welcome to my amateur stab at addressing this point for this, Carnival of Soccer 7. As I understand the question, the area is concern isn’t the - no offense to them - legion of good-and-steady players that generally populate MLS rosters. Vital as these guys are to any team for which they play, and while they could conceivably head to Europe to play a similar role, they’re not really the flight risks as high-upside, offensive players who can score goals, make the killer pass - e.g. do all the things that get people excited about watching the game. Two players who ducked the 2007 MLS Superdraft are often touted as Exhibits A & B in defining the trend of promising, young American players trying their luck in Europe: Robbie Rogers and Charlie Davies. In an article examining the extent to which we’re losing talent to Europe, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle mentions both players, as well as some other notable names - Bennie Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen, to cite a pair of ‘em.

The first, and most obvious response to the situation is this: give these players more cash. But an earlier piece on ESPN, this one by Frank Dell’Appa on Charlie Davies’ bolt to Sweden, offers reasons to think this is an incomplete answer:

“The MLS offered Davies a contract worth more than $1 million over six years, plus bonuses and a sponsorship deal. Besides making Davies among the MLS' highest-paid players, this indicated the league also was going to promote him.”

And Davies still headed to Sweden. In other words, this won’t be easy.

While we’re on Sweden, it’s fair to note that Scandinavian clubs add another wrinkle to the larger equation. A still-earlier Frank Dell’Appa column for ESPN looked at what might make the Scandinavian leagues more attractive than MLS for players with ambitions to play in Europe’s top clubs. In a word, it’s exposure. Sweden’s a hell of a lot closer to, say, Germany or England than is Boston and it’s certainly closer than LA. Moreover, the various European club competitions mean that those Scandinavian clubs often play Europe’s top clubs - which amounts to a rather direct means of auditioning for these players. In other words, it’s just easier for an ambitious player to be seen in Scandinavia than it is in MLS. Given the number of younger American players heading not only to Scandinavia, but to Dutch clubs like Heerenveen (it’s weird how clubs seem to keep collecting Americans once they start, isn’t it?), it’s fair to loosely view those countries direct competition, a factor of the lower bar for entry.

So, what to do about these realities?

First, the league, and fans as well, need to accept that some players will simply leave - as Davies did. MLS simply can’t compete with Europe’s big boys salary-wise; it only takes a quick look at what a good, but by no means stellar, player like Claudio Reyna earned with Manchester City to see that. At the same time, these players are unproven - and that works to MLS’s advantage, at least when you’re trying to, frankly, impress upon a young player the chance they’re taking by heading to Europe. A second piece comes with massaging an issue Dell’Appa refers to in his piece on Davies: call it the Clint Dempsey trap. It’s likely that a few youngsters saw Dempsey’s fight to leave MLS and got to wondering what will happen to them if they play well enough to become valuable to the league: would the MLS let them go, or will they find themselves trapped when the league demands more than suitors are willing to offer?

With all this in mind, I’d recommend that the league take one of two tacks in trying to retain these players; the one they go with depends on the player, specifically the size and urgency of his ambition.

Built-In Escape Clause
Sign the players to one-year, lucrative-for-MLS contracts. The range here would be, oh, $60-80K. The approach here is pretty simple: tell the player this is a low-risk way to experience life as a professional soccer player, but one that gives them time to find their feet and doesn’t require them to stray too far from home. The player’s contract would be up at the end of the seasoon, leaving him both free as a bird to try out across Europe and able to leave on a free transfer if it works out. And the player will be plenty motivated: he find himself very, very exposed if he comes into the league fails to perform. The idea is to pay players of this kind enough to make it worth their while.

The Eyes Wide-Open, Long-Term Option
I’ll start by suggesting that MLS took the right track with Davies. But I’d still push it further. With this option, you sign the players to long-term contracts - something like 4 to 5 years - and you pay them well, as in no less than $200K where the situation warrants doing so. On top of that - and this is the kicker - in order to compete with the exposure these players would get in Scandinavia, MLS will not only kick in with sponsorships, but they’ll proactively shop them to clubs in top leagues.

It’s the “top leagues” angle that helps keep the players in MLS. Any player who signs this deal does so on the understanding that:

1) Bolting to Sweden, Norway, or Belgium, won’t be an option - it’s tempting to exclude Holland, but there’s clubs like Ajax or Feyenoord. The idea is that MLS tells them upfront that only offers from clubs in England, Spain, France, Germany, or Italy will get a hearing; every other offer will be met with a straight no, with the exception of...

2) Offers that come in over a specifically designated dollar figure. The wrinkle here is to set this number up front, so there won’t be any surprises or bitching in the media. I’m assuming something like this could be written into a player’s contract, but my legal people haven’t got back to me on this as yet. This buy-out figure should be set high, especially with attacking players.

The idea here is to protect the league’s interests and to let players know where they stand with the assumption being this will keep them from feeling screwed over. This isn’t a huge shift, obviously; after all, this is nothing more than what happens during a normal transfer negotiation. The difference comes with the offers to expose the players, to actively push them in front of European scouts - while, all the while guaranteeing that interested clubs will have to pay top dollar to pick up the player in question.

Well, that’s what I got.

Go ahead. Tear it apart. I’ll close my eyes....

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