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Mar 4, 2007

Financial divide in MLS magnified

David Beckham's trumpeted contract isn't $250 million worth of salary, but a projected estimation that includes sponsorship and profit-sharing deals. Still, even at a reduced scale (a reported $27.5 million in base salary over five years), it's a long way from what the majority of players in Major League Soccer make.

It's hard for many people to comprehend that the U.S., known worldwide for doling out extravagant salaries to professional athletes, is in fact a modest compensator to most of the people who participate in the world's biggest sport.

That is a calculated move on behalf of the owners and investors of Major League Soccer. Keeping the salaries low avoids the profligate spending that doomed earlier soccer ventures like the NASL.

However, this might be only a small consolation to those who struggle to get by on the minimum pay of MLS, which is granted to those 10 players who are listed on a roster as "developmental."

Though eligible to play in regulation matches with their team, developmental players can make as little as around $13,000 a year from the club, pay which is below the U.S. poverty level.

MLS officials point to developmental players as something akin to the interns of the league, players given an opportunity to train and ideally, improve in a professional environment.

"It was your chance," said D.C. United goalkeeper Troy Perkins, perhaps the league's biggest developmental success story. "You could get your foot in the door and make the most out of it."

That was easier said than done.

Top 5 MLS Player Salaries 2006
Player Team Guaranteed Salary
Juan Francisco Palencia Chivas USA $1,360,000
Landon Donovan L.A. $900,000
Eddie Johnson Kansas $875,000
Juan Pablo Garcia Chivas USA $624,260
Freddy Adu D.C. United $550,000

"It's a tough position to be in," said Perkins, who supplemented his first meager developmental salary by working at a sporting goods store.

"Every day from about 2 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. every night," Perkins said. "Then I'd go home, wake up in the morning and go to training and go to the job after."

As he rose through the ranks and eventually won the starting spot with D.C., Perkins left his developmental slot behind, moving up to the senior roster. Though he understood the plight of the current developmental players, Perkins pointed out that it had been far worse in his day.

"They're making more money than I did and they have health insurance," said Perkins.

In fact, as limited as the salary is now, it has increased steadily. Hoping for an even greater improvement, Perkins welcomed the arrival of Beckham. While developmental players are untested and largely unknown, Beckham is the most widely recognized soccer player in the world.

"That's why they gave him so much money," said Perkins. "He's going to bring in more attention to the league and help bring in more players from overseas and more money and more sponsorships for the league."

A similar phenomenon in golf was dubbed "The Tiger Effect" due to the financial windfall many players gleaned from the increased visibility of the sport when Tiger Woods became a worldwide phenomenon.

Yet MLS lags far behind most of the world in attracting top players to its ranks. Many of its own top talents leave the league to ply their trade abroad.

"We don't want to be seen specifically as a feeder system for everywhere else in the world," said Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas. "We also want to get our league to a point where not only domestic players say, 'I can make as much playing here than the majority of offers that I have overseas and I can develop as a player.'"

For some players, however, even upping the financial ante is not enough incentive to sign in a league so many consider second-rate.

Such was the case with Charlie Davies, a young forward who spurned MLS to sign with the Swedish club Hammarby.

"MLS gave me a great offer," said Davies of the financial issues involved. "It was just a matter of me wanting to play in Europe. I thought that would be the best opportunity for me to get seen by bigger clubs."

Lalas, meanwhile, believes MLS is already at a credible level of play, even if the pay for some is still poor.

"The competitive side is already there," said Lalas. "The financial side, maybe we've got a little ways to go in order to compare."

In the case of salaries being comparable to Beckham's, there's still a very long way to go.

The proof lies in Perkins' future goals, where a continued MLS career is only a possibility, and Europe remains the ultimate dream. Though no longer on a developmental salary, Perkins believes a brighter future lies outside MLS.

"The way things are now, you want to go overseas to the bigger countries and the bigger leagues," he said. "Obviously, there's more opportunity and more money and the level is that much higher."

Ultimately, Beckham's stint in MLS will only be a true asset to the league if, once he leaves, the divide between his compensation and that of his peers is not so stunningly wide. The longer he remains the great exception in terms of impressive pay, the longer other young MLS prospects will set their sights and hopes elsewhere.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.