By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 8, 2016) US Soccer Players - MLS is set to further pump up its latest salary-spending shell game as its coffers – and ranks of aspiring expansion members – swell. NASL's sad, slow, behind-the-scenes death continues. USL's climb towards the second tier of the professional pyramid seems likely. None of this is particularly good news for the guys who actually do the work on the field.
This week President-Elect Donald Trump dominated the national news cycle with a very public involvement in influencing the Carrier corporation's decision to keep a few hundred manufacturing jobs in the state of Indiana, instead of outsourcing them to Mexico as they are with many other domestic positions.
Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, it was either canny maneuvering or a cynical stunt designed for media consumption. Most Americans and Canadians appreciate any effort to keep jobs in place. Especially in areas of the heartland hit hard over the past decade or three. Our countries' soccer players often don't even get the benefit of ceremonial attempts at shoring up their career and economic prospects.
For a long time now, the sport's explosive growth here has inspired a general sense of bullishness about the future. It seems that every week brings word of more cities and tycoons eager to bring pro soccer to their neighborhoods, or elevate the teams they already have – even with eye-watering, nine-figure expansion fees. We generally nod along with every new announced push for MLS consideration, even the ones that appear laughably unrealistic.
The pie is growing. How it's sliced is, by and large, no more proportionate than it was a decade ago, when first-year professionals took home poverty-line wages.
“MLS has more high-earning players than Italy's Serie A, report finds,” reads a headline found, in various phrasings, in soccer outlets around the world this week. Even if the metrics on this one are questionable, finally, we're at least inching within shouting distance of the global elite, eh?
Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl provided another sign of health by reporting that MLS is set to dump more cash into its “Targeted Allocation Money” initiative. It seems the amount of TAM – league-bestowed funding for middle-to-upper-crust talent (most of it imported from abroad) that exists outside MLS' barebones salary cap – could increase by as much as 50 percent next season. That means $1.2 million per MLS team. Designated Players, meanwhile, have become less a luxury than a near-universal feature of teams across the league.
The steady trickle of coverage heralding the slow-walking death of the NASL is more of a bummer. It's one of several less confidence-inducing developments if you're paying full attention. Yet we soccer people have been so trained in the importance of rugged optimism that we generally return to the conviction that things will work out for the best. NASL didn't exactly crack the code, did they? The USL will step into that second-tier breach and our climb towards Olympus will continue.
A common theme runs through these various items. The well-worn African proverb about the grass suffering most when elephants tussle still holds true. This is all shaping up as a net loss for domestic players – those now at the pro level, and those who will get there in the future.
New salary spending hidden outside the cap. A measurable loss of job openings as some lower-division clubs go under. De facto pay cuts as others move from the NASL's laissez-faire budgeting to the generally stricter environment of USL. The failure of a competing alternative to MLS's heavy-handed business model. The NASL may not have reached its grandiose vision of toe-to-toe competition with MLS, but it certainly did provide players with a useful alternative at contract time.
It's not paranoid or alarmist to add 2 and 2 together here. What we're watching is suppression of the wages of US and Canadian players, both actively and passively.
Yes, a rising tide can lift all boats. In this case the waters are painstakingly directed within strict channels built by MLS's corps of accounting engineers. They appear to have deemed the domestic talent pool – their captive market in many ways, even as Europe remains an option for some – a fixed cost, minimizing it at all costs. Increased investment in flashier imported talent is a shortcut, a relatively straightforward way to drive gains in quality without having to share too much of the resulting fiscal gains with the rank-and-file players.
There are consequences to this, both direct and indirect. Those who invest in pro soccer want to limit their financial risks. That's nothing new, and it's understandable. In macro terms, every dollar they push towards test-tube projects like TAM is one they're not spending on harder-to-quantify player development initiatives. Youth academies, reserve teams, and the like. This has a real effect on the quality of our homegrown talent when viewed over the long term.
To some extent, this is a matter of choice for both clubs and leagues and is difficult to fight. Then again, the whole system was about us. Our national teams, our players, coaches, fans, and even referees. It's not a vehicle for luring moneyed investors, or so they told us at the time.
The depth and extent of the North American player pool has grown and improved over the decades, just as the game itself has. It's time to ask why that's not reflected in the opportunities provided to to those players by their employers.
More from Charles Boehm: