MLS talent drain is a cause for concern
Preseason is under way across the country as the 14 teams in MLS embark on a journey they hope will end among confetti in November at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
However, all is not rosy in the MLS garden after an offseason that saw the acceleration of a trend that, if it continues, could be fundamentally detrimental to soccer in the United States. That is to say, more and more players see plying their trade in this country as a last resort. It can be argued that MLS is facing a personnel crisis.
Since the Houston Dynamo won their second straight championship this past November, a number of the league's leading players have left these shores, adversely affecting several clubs. This season, Houston will have to make do without Nate Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya from its MLS Cup squd, while the beaten finalists, the New England Revolution, lost Pat Noonan and Andy Dorman.
Eddie Johnson is no longer with the Kansas City Wizards, Matt Pickens no longer minds the Chicago Fire net and Troy Perkins is a D.C. United player no more. The San Jose Earthquakes lost a player who never turned out for them, as Clarence Goodson elected not to sign with the league. Even veteran Clint Mathis has flown the coop.
At the other end of the experience scale, January's SuperDraft was arguably as interesting for the players who did not sign with the league as those who did. Joseph Lapira, the 2006 Hermann Trophy winner, was ignored until the third round due to fears he would favor a career in Europe over playing in his home country. The same was true for Duke midfielder Mike Videira.
Even players who seemingly had shown little previous inclination to play overseas looked abroad, as D.C. United discovered to their chagrin with Andrew Jacobson. Drafted with the 23rd overall pick out of the University of California, the midfielder spurned the league's contract offer to sign with Lorient of France's Ligue 1.
When asked, the powers that be at the league's headquarters argue the traffic flows two ways, with as many players joining MLS as are leaving. That might be true in quantity, but the quality certainly leaves something to be desired. Sure, clubs continue to unearth quality talent at affordable prices from South and Central America, but the conveyor belt from the European game is increasingly populated with has-beens and never-weres.
The league's designated players, although still big names, are on the back nine of their playing careers. Last season, David Beckham and Claudio Reyna struggled to consistently justify their huge wages. D.C.'s acquisition of Marcelo Gallardo in January saw another 30-plus veteran added to the league.
At the next level down, Celestine Babyaro signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy after a once-promising career in Europe fizzled out. Some American players are coming home, but names such as Ian Joy (Real Salt Lake) and Chase Hilgenbrinck (Colorado Rapids) are hardly likely to raise many eyebrows.
The case of U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber is a further indicator of where the league currently stands. Although his move to Derby in England has proved to be a disaster and he would have MLS clubs lining up to sign him, he has chosen reserve team life with his current club over playing in America.
Simply put, MLS currently serves as a nursery for the next generation and a retirement home for the previous. The league should be asking what can be done to retain its top players (particularly those who were born and raised in this country) during their peak years, between the ages of 24 and 32.
The simple answer is, of course, money. The league's issues with player retention have, in most cases, nothing to do with the quality of soccer. The majority of recent moves have been made by players to second-tier leagues, with Scandinavia a particularly popular destination. The financial rewards are the main incentive to go.
Noonan recently rejected a contract offer from MLS in favor of seeking an overseas challenge. The former New England forward is an example of a number of recently departed players. An international player who long stood on the fringes of breaking into the U.S.' first-choice squad, he had a serviceable career in the league, although he was slowed by nagging injuries in recent times.
Out of contract following the 2007 season, Noonan was given the chance to negotiate overseas after the Revolution opted not to pick up the option attached to his previous contract. Instead, New England offered a new deal which, sources say, offered a salary below that which he earned last year.
No thanks, said Noonan, who promptly turned around and signed with Aalesund of the Norwegian Premier League. At approximately $400,000, including a signing bonus, Noonan's new salary doubles what he was offered to stay in MLS. It is easy to see why, as one agent said, players are savvier when it comes to negotiating with the league as they become increasingly aware of the opportunities that exist in other countries.
Thus, MLS needs to increase its salary cap in order to consistently reward its best players. Contract lengths also are a sticking point. Too often, players are asked to operate on a year-by-year basis in MLS, although they can lock up contracts for multiple seasons and guaranteed money overseas. Again, it's not a cultural experience these players are looking for. Green is the color.
In the dozen years since MLS began, the league has never had a higher profile in the soccer world, but the exposure is proving to be a double-edged sword. Players are in demand, and the rewards offered by foreign clubs far exceed those that are on offer in the United States. The league faces a difficult balancing act to ensure it can retain its biggest names without spending beyond its means.
Andrew Hush is a soccer researcher for ESPN International. He can be reached at email@example.com.