BRENT LATHAM - Monday, August 3, 2009
On the heels of his son's multimillion dollar transfer to 1860 Munich, the father of striker Kenny Cooper says MLS needs to reconsider its transfer policy and treatment of its American stars.
Kenny Cooper Sr., a former NASL player and long-time soccer coach in America, has played an active role in his son's career since the younger Cooper's days in the youth ranks at Manchester United. Having finally completed a deal to get Cooper, Jr. back to Europe, the elder Cooper says their days at FC Dallas have been overwhelmingly positive, but that in the end MLS failed to properly value his son's services.
"I am a great believer that MLS is doing a fantastic job developing the American game," Coach Cooper told YA in an exclusive interview. "He's loved playing in Dallas, he's loved playing in MLS, and he's loved every minute. But it's the system you have to look at."
Cooper, Sr. said the family would have liked to remain in Dallas, where he played several seasons in the 70's as a goalkeeper for the Dallas Tornado of the long-defunct NASL. Nevertheless, Cooper says it became clear over time that in MLS his son would never receive the salary his talent commands on the open market.
"The value of a player as a young American is not even close to what it should be," says Cooper, Sr. of the pay scale in MLS. "It's sad when people from other countries see your talent and reward you, and pay you what you're worth, as opposed to being an American player who's told we can't pay you because this other player makes less."
Through the designated player rule in conjunction with the salary cap, the MLS values foreign stars far more highly than its best American players, the coach contends.
"I still have difficulty understanding in this league, as I expressed to the commissioner in Toronto last July, I can't understand when you have young American players who can play anywhere in the world and they're somewhat punished because they're Americans," he says. "As someone who's been in the league and the country as a coach, and the system for 38 years, I think that this league at times would rather reward a proven failure than unlimited potential."
Cooper was particularly critical of the designated player rule, which has received a good deal of attention in the fallout from the David Beckham transfer. In some cases, the rule allows one foreign import to be paid nearly as much as or even more than the rest of an MLS team's players combined.
"They've done a lot of things right - soccer specific stadiums, great ownership - but there shouldn't be a ceiling put on great American players," says Cooper. "Then they bring in a foreign player and they say 'we'll make him the DP, the highest paid player,' and there's no reward for a person who works hard and builds up the club."
"What message are you sending to the fans of Dallas, and the kids who come through the system, if after three years you say we're not going to pay him what they are worth, we're going to sell him?"
Cooper says many players in MLS find the restrictions on pay and player movements to be unfair, and he fears that tension may soon lead to labor strife.
"There are all these stipulations and rules, but to me they're all one-sided. It's going to culminate with the union and the MLS getting together and agreeing to respectfully disagree. I would hope that the players don't even think about going on strike, but something's got to give.
"The young kids are sitting back and watching this unfold and thinking, 'what's my incentive to stay with my hometown team?'," Cooper asks. "But if they go overseas, and come back, they'll be told 'you went overseas, you didn't stay in the system, so we're going to pay you $24,000.' It's just not a level playing field when it comes to Americans."
Cooper Sr. says that like many local products, one of his son's dreams had always been to play in the United States. After a few seasons as a youth on the fringes of Manchester United's first team, Cooper says his son made the decision to come back to MLS instead of signing an extension with the fabled Red Devils, despite Coach Sir Alex Ferguson's desire to keep the young American.
"We were working on a new one year extension," Cooper Sr. says of his son's departure in 2006 from the eleven-time Premier League champions. "Kenny thought maybe it was time to try something else. He always believed in American soccer, and he spoke to Sir Alex and explained. Sir Alex wanted him to stay, but he preferred to go back to the States."
Upon working out the terms of junior's pass to MLS, the complications of dealing with the American league first became clear to the Coopers when Manchester United asked for a transfer fee, recalls the elder Cooper.
"Originally they wanted a transfer fee, but we knew MLS wasn't going to pay one," he says. "We talked and got that to go away. Manchester United wanted fifty percent if he was sold on, but when MLS refused that as well, they granted Kenny his release. That's just the type of club they are. They're fantastic."
Cooper emphasized that his son, who was making over $300,000 at Manchester United as an eighteen-year old, took a drastic pay cut to return to the States. The father says his assumption was that the striker would be rewarded financially if he played well.
When that didn't turn out to be the case - Cooper made $83,000 in 2008 and $103,000 in 2009 according to the MLS players' union - even as the younger Cooper scored 40 goals in 90 MLS games over three and half seasons for Dallas, the player had little choice but to look for a move back to Europe. To do that, Cooper Senior says he had already designed a contingency plan along with agent Lyle Yorks, which had been in effect since the move stateside.
"We put a three year plan together for Kenny in terms of if you're not going to get paid what you're worth then we'll have to go back overseas," says Cooper. "We were never able to meet in the middle or anything close to that. Lyle did a fantastic job putting a game plan together, picking the right moment."
But before the striker could move back to Europe, a suitor willing to meet MLS' financial terms had to emerge. Cooper says a number of teams were interested in his son's services this summer, and it was just a matter of finding the right situation.
"Munich was very patient," the father says of the team which finally secured his son's services. "We knew in the transfer window there would be offers coming in - Eintrach Frankfurt, Cardiff City, Bristol City, West Bromwich Albion - but this one it felt right. It's a massive club with great tradition. I guess you could say a little like Newcastle United in that it's a great team that went down."
Before 1860 Munich moved in, Cooper was close to a deal to move back to England with Championship club Bristol City, but that accord apparently fell apart over MLS' insistence that the player sign over his right to ten percent of the transfer fee, a percentage guaranteed by FIFA bylaws. A deal that would have sent Cooper to Norwegian side Rosenberg last summer also fell apart over Cooper's refusal to sign over his portion of the fee.
MLS' stinginess over players' share of transfer fees was not directed solely at Cooper, it turns out. Nearly every player to leave MLS, with the exception of Brad Guzan, has reportedly been convinced to give up their portion of the fee.
"You can call it business or whatever you want, but what I call it is incorrect," the elder Cooper says of the practice. "Every player in the world gets ten percent, so why would you stop a young player from getting his, when you're making millions? Why would Kenny give up $500,000 when the league's making five million? Nowhere else in the world does that happen."
In the end the Germans upped the personal terms of the deal to the point that it made sense for the Coopers to drop their objections to waiving their right to the share of the fee, and MLS signed off on the deal. The Dallas father-son tandem is now anxious to get to Germany and continue Cooper, Jr.'s development.
"Kenny is not the finished product, he's got a long way to go," the coach says. "He's 24, he's not going to come into his best as a striker until he's 27. Kenny has recognized that if he wants to develop his career and become a permanent fixture in the national team, he needs to play in Europe. Coach Bradley's mentality is that if you guys need to get better you need to play in Europe. That's how we came to this decision."
Coach Cooper indicated that in his conversations with the coaching staff at 1860 Munich, they had suggested they see the now former FC Dallas hitman as starter in their squad.
Cooper added that both hope to return to the United States at some point, and emphasized that despite his objections to the salary structure and transfer process, the family remains pleased with their treatment by the FC Dallas franchise and ownership, and the American soccer community in general.
"We're not bitter, not at all, but I feel a responsibility as someone who's seen the process at work. They've got to understand, you don't do business that way," said Cooper, reiterating that he anticipates his son returning to MLS later in his career. "Hopefully by then they pay Americans what they're truly worth."
The Coopers departed Dallas for Munich on Sunday, and Cooper, Jr. will likely be available when 1860 Munich kicks off its 2. Bundesliga campaign next weekend at home against TuS Koblenz.