It's September, and Jay Needham is playing the sport he loves. A third-round pick in the January MLS SuperDraft, Needham is exactly the type of player MLS clubs live and die by. A strong, talented defender, Needham was considered one of the top man-markers in the MLS SuperDraft player pool and, by all accounts, he has performed well this season.
Except, Jay Needham is not earning his accolades in MLS.
The news of an American playing overseas isn't shocking. Since MLS started in 1996, talented young U.S. players have left school and tested the waters of overseas leagues. Whether it is Lee Nguyen (PSV Eindhoven) or Sal Zizzo (Hannover 96), many players see the advantages to playing abroad. Needham's case is different from those cited above, though: He spurned MLS for a lower-level league and is a member of the Puerto Rico Islanders of the United Soccer Leagues.
Needham's journey to the second division is puzzling on the surface. A stylish defender, 6-foot-2 Needham was consistently awarded honors and all-conference selections throughout his career. It came as no surprise that Needham, a team captain and a starter at SMU since his freshman year, was drafted by D.C. United. In fact, many felt Needham fit an obvious need along the United back line. It all added up in most people's minds.
But it didn't add up in Needham's bank account.
"DC offered me a senior developmental contract," Needham said. "They told me the reason for offering me a developmental deal was because of how short they were on roster spots but that if I proved myself that they would bump me up to a full roster spot. On a developmental contract, though, I would have had to get another job and room with several guys from the team."
Needham quickly points out that others from United have followed this plan and encountered success. On the current team, starters Troy Perkins and Bobby Boswell started with developmental contracts; others throughout the league, such as national team striker Chris Rolfe and Colorado Rapids forward Herculez Gomez, also claim this humble start in their player biographies.
"We have not done a thorough study of the number of developmental players who ultimately become senior roster players, but the percentage is relatively low -- my sense is that it is under 10 percent," said Bob Foose, the executive director of the MLS Players Union. "An alarming trend that we are seeing more of this year is the repeat developmental player -- players coming back for second and possibly even third years under these contracts."
There is no issue more crucial to the league today than MLS being able to recruit and develop star players. Despite the advent of the designated player slot that has allowed for several marquee signings throughout the league, the backbone of MLS will continue to be young, American talent. Make no mistake about it, for every Beckham and Blanco, there is a Needham-type player who keeps MLS afloat.
The birth of developmental roster slots was greeted by many fans of the league as a sign of MLS' interest in developing young, homegrown talent. It was supposed to be a bridge of sorts for reserve teams and a true youth development system. The players, however, have a different take.
"An interesting conversation I had with one of the D.C. veterans before I decided to leave kind of helped put things in better perspective for my situation," Needham said. "He walked up to me and said 'Heard they offered you a developmental deal.' I told him yes. He then looked at me and said 'You told them no ... right?' Once again, I said yes, and then he smiled, said 'Good kid' and then walked away."
"This player is someone whom I highly respect, and I think that everyone in U.S. soccer respects, too," Needham said. "For him to say that, I knew that I couldn't take that deal. Another interesting thought was that at this year's player combine, we had a MLS players' union meeting, and there they told all of us not to sign a developmental contract."
"It's clearly not about the money, but many young players clearly believe it's an opportunity they wish to take -- so they see something in it," said Ivan Gazidis, the deputy commissioner of MLS, with regards to the question of the low wages offered. "The salaries are comparable to those in minor league baseball or the NBA development league and are at levels that were proposed to us by the MLS Players' Union in the context of our collective bargaining and agreed to by us."
A developmental contract offered to a player by any MLS team is relatively straightforward. The contract, in part, holds that the player will be paid at the "rate of $1,075 per month gross of taxes" from March 1 to Dec. 31. In addition, the contract spells out incentives that can be earned as follows:
1. MLS team 75 percent start: $5,000 if you start in 75 percent or more of the MLS league season games (including MLS regular-season and playoff games but not including the U.S. Open Cup or other tournaments) of the MLS team to which you are assigned.
2. MLS All-Star: $5,000 if you are named to the official MLS All-Star team.
3. MLS Rookie of the Year: $5,000 if you are selected as the official MLS Rookie of the Year.
The team holds a one-year option on a player for a second year, compensation of which would be $33,000 for the season. That option can be extended for two seasons beyond that, meaning a player who signed with the league this past spring would be under contract through 2010 under the terms of the deal. Such a player would be entering his fourth year in the league and be making a little more than $38,000.
No league in the world can retain all its young players. What is worrying about Needham's situation, however, is that he didn't just spurn the league but rather was required to take a step down to achieve a more financially viable position.
For a league claiming to be major, these money numbers are shocking and point to an even more worrisome state of affairs. Considering that many rookies in the second division USL earn nearly double what a developmental player makes, and that these players have a shorter regular-season schedule, and the situation is borderline embarrassing.
"Developmental players earn approximately $8 per hour for their services," noted Foose about last year's contract. "In short, developmental contracts are an embarrassment to all of us associated with the league and a substantial hindrance to its continued development."
To lose players to the second division of a lower-tier league is a sign of MLS having its priority in the wrong places, plain and simple. The league has earned a reputation as being thrifty and rightfully so. As a growing body, MLS is wise to use its single-entity status to check growth and carefully expand, both in terms of size and fiscal responsibilities. Yet what is being seen now is that MLS is jumping over dollars to pick up nickels. If MLS can't sign a player like Needham -- a collegiate standout who wanted to play in the league -- to a contract that allows him both an affordable wage and the ability to concentrate solely on his soccer career, something is wrong. And no matter how many superstars sign with MLS, the standard of play will suffer.
Kristian R. Dyer covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He appears regularly in the New York City newspaper Metro. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com