Home MLS Toronto FC O’Dea’s departure a sign of a fundamental flaw in MLS

O’Dea’s departure a sign of a fundamental flaw in MLS

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Back in my elementary-school years, my friends and I had a spring-time fixation. We’d go out near the playground boundary at Brampton’s John Newman Catholic School, and search the leafy greens that poked through the chain-link fences that separated the schoolyard from the backyards of the bordering homes.

What were we looking for? Caterpillars. We’d find our prey, and carefully prod them into jars, that were already lovingly stuffed with leaves, grass and a few drops of water — all the necessities of life for a caterpillar. Then, the lids, already with tiny air holes pre-punched in them, would be screwed on top.

For most of us, the caterpillar experiment would end in sorrow. After a few days, the average boy would notice the creature had stopped moving, and he’d shake out the greens and the corpse, and then be off into the greens again to look for a new pet/victim.

But, the lucky one (and, to be clear, this happened to me only once. I have a lot of caterpillars on my conscience) would one day find a white cocoon and, then, be able to see a moth emerge. Once the cocoon had formed, there was no more need for the lid — once it was ready, the moth would be able to fly away, and the adoptive parenthood of a bug could be called a success.

MLS is at that cocoon stage; it was nurtured in a controlled environment filled with salary caps, allocations and draft orders. It beat the odds, as pro soccer hasn’t been a survival industry on this continent. But, soon it will be ready to fly away; commissioner Don Garber has repeated this over and over — that MLS will be one of the world’s top leagues in 10 years.

The Designated Player rule exists in order to help teams bring in a couple of marquee names each; a new fund was created to help teams retain star player, which Sporting Kansas City used to keep Graham Zusi away from the clutches of potential European suitors.

But MLS has a long way to go. And proof of this is the situation which has soon-to-be-ex Toronto FC defender Darren O’Dea moving off to the Ukraine. When news broke this weekend that TFC was going to shed O’Dea’s salary, which was in excess of US$400,000 and represented a larger cap hit than a DP would take, the common reaction was this:

“That was too much money to spend on a defender in this league.”

O’Dea was the TFC captain, and one of the more dependable defenders on a team that has no real history of defensive capabilities. But, there is an unwritten rule out there that bringing in an international defender has to be done in a cost-effective manner.

In any of the major European leagues, you know, the ones that MLS wants to be rated with in 10 years, the issue of a defender in the prime of his career (O’Dea is 26) making a little less than a half million a year wouldn’t be an issue at all.

And this reflects the internal battle MLS will need to fight over the next 10 years. Yes, the strict salary cap creates an insulated economic picture. Let’s face it, the money the New England Revolution or Chivas USA could lose in a year would be a drop in the bucket compared to the red ink of the Phoenix Coyotes. And, of course the strong salary cap — plus controlling the labour market through centralized signing of contracts through the league head office — makes the MLS attractive for investors wanting to jump into expansion markets. MLS limits risk; even with a DP or two, you can employ an entire roster for about the same as it would cost an NHL owner to pay a second-line centre.

Meanwhile, those European leagues are dealing with a poor economy but are still spending beyond their means. We see debts growing and more teams warning their supporters that they’re on the fringes of bankruptcy. Yet the inflationary trend on salaries and transfers continues to spike. It’s a stupid model that no sane person should copy. Yet, that’s the markets that MLS are up against. And, to attract and retain talent, that’s who you have to play against. You can either take the Arsenal strategy, be frugal and gamble that your opponents’ finances catch up with them, or find a middle ground where you preserve the cap, but allow teams more independence and players the chance to make more money.

I’ve spoken to many Canadian players in Europe, and some have been contacted by MLS teams. And often, what I hear is something like this: “I’m not coming to North America to make $60,000. “

You can argue that it’s better for the Canadian program or Canadian development that our players are on MLS rosters rather than in lower European divisions. But, this is where supporters are guilty of not thinking as players and agents do.

In North America, players often cover their own expenses. And, as one Canadian player told me earlier this year when looking at MLS salaries under the $50,000/year mark, “this is BEFORE taxes?” Meanwhile, in Europe, not only are the wages better, but rent and transport are often covered by the club. So, the money earned is truly take-home money. Some countries offer tax-insulated deals. In North America, fans will often see a contract and go “he makes that much money a a year?” and not figure that the player’s agent takes a percentage and that there are many taxes to be paid.

Injuries and Taxes
Successful players – that is, anyone who can play soccer for a living and has hung on for more than a couple of years — don’t think of their careers as a year-to-year thing. You may think a Canadian player is being snobbish for turning down MLS money — as Mozzi Gyorio did last year in Kansas City (CLICK HERE). After all, it’s a contract, isn’t it?

Players, at least the smart ones, see their careers as a cycle. They know that they’ve sacrificed school — unless they take the NCAA routes, which gives them very late starts on their pro careers. They know that once their career is over, there may be a period of readjustment before they work again.

So, they need to make their career cycle work financially — that is, you understand that your first contract may be small, but by the time you are in your mid-20s, you are at the top of curve and need to be earning top dollar (that is where O’Dea is right now). You understand that as you near and pass the 30 barrier, your contracts will once again get smaller.

Basically, you say to yourself that once you average out all of your working years, it should equal a wage that’s equal to a comfortable living. A couple of years with six-digit salaries makes up for years where the wages were in that $40K range.

This is the case of the majority of pro players. And they also understand that one injury could ruin it all.

So, this is where the soul-searching will need to come from MLS and its owners over the next decade. They have designated money for top players and have been working to develop academies. There’s money to slow the bleeding of good players to other leagues.

But you still have major gaps when it comes to repatriating American and Canadian talent. And, you still have issues when it comes to players in the six-digit-salary range who aren’t DPs.

To agents and players, the fact that an MLS team couldn’t retain a player who made a little less than $500,000 in the prime earning years of his career sends a message that it’s still got a ways to go before it can be considered a top league.

For MLS to fly out of that jar, it needs to find a way to keep some level of cost certainty, but make itself a more attractive place for players outside of the DP realm. They have a decade to figure it out.

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4 Comments

  1. footy

    July 17, 2013 at 11:43 am

    It’s a good point Steven. MLS will never be taken seriously as long as they have the Cap in place. Rasing the bottom-salaries is one thing and the length of contracts is another. But MLS right now is a bad business-model. You are right, they had to do it, but after two decades they should rethink everything.

    Stars draw viewers, if you allow teams (take the Galaxy for instance) to stack-up stars, they will draw much bigger audiences (talking TV ratings here). Cause that’s were the money comes from, not attendance, but millions of viewers at home. Everybody in France wants to see Zlatan at PSG (I know I would, I’ve only seen him play at Ajax).

    Also, if you remove the cap, the league itself will be regarded better overall. That can help keep good pros (like O’Dea) in the league. Moreover, it will help the clubs and the talented kids because it gives those talents value. If you sell one mega-talent, it can be enough to cover for 5 years of academy costs. Now you see the other leagues are hesitant to employ MLS players, cause there’s no assurance that a good MLS player can also succeed in Germany, the Netherlands or England.

    One tiny remark though. Clubs in Europe differ a whole lot when it come to their spending. Most clubs in Germany and the Eredivisie are sound, if you look at Bayern Munich, they are right out rich. They make a lot of money. In England it’s the Sheiks and Oligarchs that can balance any budget. Things differ a bit in some other countries though. Real Madrid and Barca also make money (probably) and besides, they are too big to fail. But the same does not go for other clubs in Spain and Italy and Greece and even Belgium.

    Reply

  2. BCM

    July 17, 2013 at 3:22 am

    Well, a few short years ago the bottom end was US$12,000 per year. Ridiculous.

    Take a cue from Australia and lift the bottom – it will keep players a little bit longer. Agree US$75000 seems ideal, enough to live on but not enough to massively dent the bottom line.

    Reply

    • Steven Sandor

      July 17, 2013 at 3:40 am

      Another issue is the length of contract. Some players would be more comfortable signing low-end deals if they were one-year deals. Prove something on the pitch, and you can raise your value. If things don’t work out, you have the chance to leave MLS and try something else. But the 2+2 (team option) deal could theoretically pin a player to a low wage for a large portion of his prime years.

      Reply

  3. Seathanaich

    July 16, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Good article, good points, well written. Where MLS needs to increase next is at the bottom end of their salaries: they need to start paying players 12-20 on the roster something like $75K per year, not $40-60, because that’s not enough to attract players as good as the ones MLS needs to play with its star players.

    Unfortunately, there’s not much return on investment for MLS and its clubs in doing that. Those players aren’t the ones who are going to drive up revenues from attendances and television. Garber needs to realise that the increase of the wage for those guys may not pay off, dollar for dollar, but that it is STILL the next thing the league needs to do on the salary front to consolidate at 20 teams, and prepare for the next step in the growth of the league.

    Reply

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