By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 3, 2016) US Soccer Players – Pity MLS clubs. Pity them and the disadvantages they take with them into the world player market, where their weaknesses are on display for all to exploit. Pity the poor wretches. Pity them.
To be blunt, MLS teams have many an issue when it comes to dipping their toes into the choppy, unforgiving waters of the international player market. In fairness, MLS teams also have a few notable advantages. Quality of life and anonymity for professionals who value a quieter existence are no small things. Still, it’s the unique nature of the internal rules that make something as simple as saying “no” to a player transfer extremely difficult.
Hungarian attacker Krisztian Nemeth was a coup of a signing for Sporting Kansas City in 2015. Once a Liverpool project, Nemeth bounced around Europe for years, unable to settle into once place for very long. Talented, but clearly a value signing because of his journeymen record, Nemeth proved to be an excellent addition to Peter Vermes’s squad. He scored 10 goals in 28 league appearances, picking up some of the slack left by a dip in goals from Dom Dwyer. When available, Nemeth was one of Sporting’s most dangerous options. No one on the team scored more goals per 90 minutes than Nemeth.
There’s no doubt that Sporting would have liked to have kept Nemeth around in 2016. His original contract was for four seasons, meaning he still had three years left on a deal that paid him a reported $250,000 last year. Unfortunately for Sporting, Nemeth recognized that he had out-achieved his contract and asked the club for a raise. Sporting duly obliged Nemeth’s request to sit down and talk about the matter.
The two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. According to Vermes, Nemeth’s asking price was just too high. The club could not accommodate his salary demands. Left with only the possibility of asking a clearly unsettled player to honor his contract , Sporting instead sold the 27-year old Al-Gharafa of the Qatari league.
We can’t be sure if Nemeth’s demands proved too much for Sporting because of simple economics or because they were unable to fit a higher salary for the attacker under the salary cap. This being MLS, the safe assumption is on the simple economics.
To see a player of Nemeth’s talent come and go so quickly is a problem the league needs to be cognizant of, especially if Sporting found themselves forced to sell him because of salary budget restrictions. Knowing the situation with Sporting, Nemeth’s representation found him a golden parachute in the form of a move to the Middle East. Sporting’s decision to sell came not because they were looking to cash in on a Nemeth, a free transfer into MLS, but because they’d been boxed in by the cap.
MLS attempts to allow their teams some measure of leverage by refusing to publicize all manner of information related to a club’s salary cap position. It’s a calculated decision. If foreign clubs and agents knew what MLS teams had to work with within the league’s complicated salary budget structure, they could use that information to their advantage. The fact that there’s a cap at all, and that sometimes MLS teams must make painful moves to stay within that cap, is common knowledge the league can do nothing about.
It’s not just the league-mandated spending that dictates whether MLS teams can pass on offers to purchase their players. The typical MLS operation, while light years beyond the state of things in an earlier era, remains a modest affair. It takes a club secure in their financial position and comfortable with the amount of money available to reinvest in things like academies and facilities, to say no to a lucrative offer for any player. The Red Bulls sale of Matt Miazga might be as much about Miazga’s ambitions as anything, admittedly, still feels like something an MLS team has to do. The reported $5 million fee, relative to the salaries the club plays and the amount of money spent on improvement, is a windfall an MLS club can’t pass up.
The irony of the situation is that while MLS has done a marvelous job depressing salaries internally in a bid to control wages while squeezing out good quality soccer, it has also created a bargain market for players to be sold from the league. In the past, MLS occasionally said no to an offer, perhaps in part because of the paltry transfer fees on offer for some of the league’s best players. As the league has matured, those decisions now lie almost entirely with individual clubs. Those clubs are finding nearly impossible to say no. Certainly not when there’s a salary budget to massage, coaches to hire, players to train, and practice fields to build.
Being on a budget is fine, to a point. But when everybody knows your limits, it makes saying “no” nearly impossible.
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