By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 27, 2016) US Soccer Players – As MLS training camps get underway, two stories made the news that don’t exactly flatter the league. The first comes from LA, with the Galaxy signing a replacement for Omar Gonzalez, the former MLS Defender of the Year they sold to Pachuca earlier this month. Jelle Van Damme, last of Standard Liege in Belgium, joins Bruce Arena’s team with the expectations that he’ll step right into the starting lineup for 2016.
There’s only one problem, and it may not be small. Van Damme has something disturbing in his past. Back in 2009 while playing for Anderlecht in his native Belgium, Van Damme had a run-in with US international Oguchi Onyewu. Onyewu, then playing for Standard, claimed Van Damme twice called him a “dirty monkey” during a game. Onyewu later filed a lawsuit against Van Damme, demanding the Belgian make a sincere apology for his actions as a stipulation for dropping the suit.
Van Damme eventually made that apology, which Onyewu accepted. The American defender indicated that he didn’t believe Van Damme to be racist, but that his use of a racist epithet couldn’t be allowed to go unquestioned.
The Galaxy certainly knew all about this history when they commenced their interest in signing Van Damme. Announcing the deal led to obvious questions. Were the Galaxy signing a player with a severe character flaw? How could any team in MLS (remember this is the league that has suspended more than one player for using gay slurs on field) think it okay to bring in a player with such a sordid incident on his record?
For their part, the Galaxy say they’ve done their due diligence on Van Damme. The team’s website ran an item outlining the process of speaking to numerous people familiar with Van Damme, including Onyewu. Head coach Bruce Arena spoke directly about his conversation with the former American international.
“I’ve spoken to Gooch about the situation and there doesn’t appear to be any issues or hard feelings,” Arena said. “As a rule, we don’t try to sign people that we think don’t want to play anymore or racist or whatever. That’s not the business that we’re in. You’d have to be a fool to think that’s how we do our business.”
Arena is asking Galaxy fans to trust that the club. It’s a justifiable approach considering the resolution of the lawsuit and the disclosures of conversations with Onyewu and others. But there remain questions, mostly because the Galaxy chose to sign Van Damme at all. There are many players in the world who might fit Galaxy needs who don’t have Van Damme’s despicable history.
MLS contract disputes are, typically speaking, very polite affairs. Even when a player decides to make an issue of his pay in light of a stellar campaign, the push for a raise rarely takes place in the public sphere. That’s distinctly different from other American pro sports, where the war of words and the influence of agents plays a major role in the drama. Public opinion can sometimes play a large part in how a team responds to a demand for more money from a popular player.
Kei Kamara is popular in Columbus, both because of his effusive and engaging personality and because of his important contributions on the field. Crew SC’s signing of the forward made all the difference in 2015, helping the club to an Eastern Conference championship and a berth in the MLS Cup Final. Kamara scored 22 goals last year, and if not for the gaudy assists numbers put up by Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco, he would have won MVP and the Golden Boot.
Per Steven Goff of the Washington Post, an MLS reporter who simply doesn’t get these things wrong, Kamara wants a pay raise from Columbus. Perhaps to that end, he did not travel with the club to their training camp in Florida over the weekend. The club is painting the extra days in Ohio for Kamara as part of an excused absence after his return from a trip to Sierra Leone, his native country. When asked directly if there was a contract dispute between the player and the club during a media conference call, head coach Gregg Berhalter sidestepped the question, lending credence to the story.
There’s been nothing public from Kamara, and the club won’t acknowledge any issue. It’s the MLS way.
Even if a dispute over pay plays out behind the scenes, it does highlight the problem MLS has made for itself via its pay scale, especially when it comes to the highest paid players in the League. Whether right is on the side of Crew SC – Kamara agreed to his current contract and should honor the remaining two seasons left on it – or on the side of Kamara, it’s not hard to see why the striker might think he should be in line for a raise. The man he equaled for goals in 2015, TFC’s Sebastian Giovinco, made $7.1 million. Kamara probably isn’t aiming for that number, but considering the number of players who made multiples of the striker’s salary but performed levels markedly lower, there’s plenty of room in between.
What MLS values isn’t simple to explain because it so rarely centers around performance on the field. Successful players underpaid by statistical comparisons will no doubt continue to see it differently, leading to contract disputes, holdouts, and the drama that comes with them.
More From Jason Davis: