by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

With much anticipation, the inaugural MLS re-entry draft arrived this week with a varied assortment of players available for selection. Big name veterans like Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Juan Pablo Angel and modestly paid options like Luke Sassano and Joseph Ngwenya populated the initial list of 35 players that went un-tendered by their original teams. This draft was lauded as a breakthrough moment for the players of MLS, who in their negotiations earlier this year on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the league wanted greater flexibility in changing teams in the off-season — a form of free agency if you will in a league where all player contracts are owned by a single entity. Yet when the big event commenced this previous Wednesday, it concluded
with only two players selected, and in as much time as it takes me to brew my morning cup of tea.

This is not to say that the second stage of the MLS re-entry draft will be as uneventful — teams previously had to pick up the current player contract option, and now have an opportunity to renegotiate that salary figure — as teams will look further into getting the available players at discounted prices. The first round went nearly as I had expected, though I was off on my guess of how many players would be selected by two. The reality in this new player dispersal process was this: with a two stage process that allowed you the option as a team of paying the list price for a player or wait a week and pay a discount price, most, if not all of the available players would have to wait for round two. To put it in general terms, why would I go out shopping on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when I know everything will be on sale on Black Friday (Ed. - because Black Friday is hell on earth).

What is most interesting about this new MLS draft process (by the way, how many more drafts, allocation processes, discovery processes, etc. will the league have before even the team General Managers are left in various states of bewilderment?) is that the time between rounds can now be used by teams to exclusively negotiate a new salary with the players they assigned to the draft, and then sign them back onto their rosters. This almost harkens back to the bad old days of Major League Baseball, when every player was signed to an annual contract, and the teams held all the cards in yearly negotiations. MLS was running a system eerily similar to that prior to this off-season, and I’ll give you that this new mechanism for player movement, but the players are still a long ways off from true free agency. Fortunately for them, if their teams try to play hardball in negotiations this week, they can go back into the second phase of the re-entry draft. In fact, if a player is not selected in that phase, they become as close to a free agent that MLS has ever allowed in that they can then negotiate with any team in the league on a salary number.

I want to back away from the MLS re-entry draft conversation for a bit — in just the time it took me to write the above words, the second phase of the draft could be completed — and turn your attention on to a different bright spot for players in this off-season. A strong sign that MLS is growing as a league was the announcements of new contracts for Seattle Sounders FC’s Fredy Montero and Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio that elevate both players to Designated Player status. The first was widely expected to be seeking a big-money contract overseas, while the second had the option to use his successful tenure in MLS as a springboard for a move abroad. Instead, fans of their teams — as well as fans around the league — won’t have to search out grainy feeds on the internet to watch them continue to develop as high-class soccer players.

That Seattle and Salt Lake decided to award these DP contracts upon two of the leagues most dynamic goal scorers sends the message to other aspiring young players that MLS may prove to be a fertile ground for achieving fortune and fame in their careers. And for supporters, the parlor game of wondering where your best young player will be transferring to in Europe can be replaced with a more interesting game of guessing which of those talented youngsters will now gain their just rewards from MLS. The DP status bestowed on Montero and Saborio is fantastic for them — salary figures have not been released, but at minimum they are now earning over $335,000 annually — and signals a clear shift by the league away from artificial salary frugality. No more crying wolf that the salary cap precludes the teams from keeping promising young players Stateside. Instead, I expect a renaissance of sorts in the next few years that will see other teams lock down their best young players in an effort to put a more engaging product on the field.

If you pour over the MLS player salary figures for years past — I have by the way, especially as a way to cure insomnia — you find that most players earn close to minimum salary or somewhere in the $150-200K range depending on their age and league experience. Occasionally you see a salary figure above both those ranges, often for the team’s star player. Some of the promising young players of prior MLS seasons — Jozy Altidore, Stuart Holden, Tim Howard to name a few — that had contracts residing at the low end of the salary scale are long gone from these shores. Players that could have easily become the face of their franchises were not given that chance by the salary restrictions in MLS. That no longer has to happen, as illustrated by the cases of Montero and Saborio. The option now exists to compete with the bigger money clubs of overseas for the service of the finest young players currently on display in MLS.

The whole DP experiment has been successful thus far, and Seattle and Salt Lake are now taking it to level that will benefit the league for many years to come. Signing a DP with the intent of putting butts in seats has had its hits and misses since the original DP himself, David Beckham, joined MLS in 2007. I firmly believe that novelty DP signings like Beckham and Thierry Henry don’t directly translate to the more important butts-in-seats factor of winning. That comes from having players on the upswing of their career arcs that have proven they can succeed in MLS from an earlier age or from a few seasons of experience with our domestic game. Who can argue with me that the Houston Dynamo wouldn’t have been a play-off contender if Holden was plying his trade in the midfield down at Robertson Stadium?

So, which players in MLS do I want to see graduate to DP status in the coming years? Which players have the skill and ability to elevate their teams to the playoffs and can provide star power to a league that still craves attention in the American soccer community? Well, I see exciting attacking players like Andy Najar of DC United, Danny Mwanga of Philadelphia, and Juan Agudelo of Red Bull New York potentially scaling that mountain of money in the next three or four years. Maybe stud defenders like Tim Ream of NY, Omar Gonzales of LA, and Ike Opara of San Jose will deserve big pay-days to continue their development and dominance in MLS. Perhaps midfielders such as Geoff Cameron of Houston and Juninho of the Galaxy are primed to earn that big raise before they flee for big European contracts. Since I realize that this is a rather limited list, I invite you, the reader, to nominate some players in the comments below.

I realize the economics don’t allow for a long list of handsomely paid players in MLS, but the league will do itself a big favor in terms of quality and prestige by keeping these potential stars at home. I want to see high-stakes gambles on the emerging Monteros and proven Saborios of MLS rather than on declining superstars such as Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, and Cuauhtemoc Blanco in the upcoming years. Spectacle is nice on occasion — who doesn’t enjoy a fireworks show on a summer evening — but give me players that can improve themselves and their teams while earning those big salaries, and I assure you that fans will come out to watch.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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