ISAAC HEATH - Monday, November 23, 2009
Every player at some point in their career has to make a difficult decision. These decisions can often be the difference between playing for a national team or not, becoming a recognizable world star or just another player, and of course, can be the difference between a lofty or lowly salary.
In 1996 Eric Wynalda made a decision that altered his career forever when he had to choose whether he would stay and play in Germany, or return to the United States for the start of MLS.
"I remember sitting with my coach and him telling me 'You're crazy to leave,' Wynalda recalled."I told him, 'It's the United States! We have always wanted our own league and I have to be a part of this.'"
Today Wynalda would not only give anything to go back in time and listen to the advice of his coach, but he would also share the same advice to top American talent. The two main factors contributing to this sentiment are problems with the way MLS deals with its player contracts, and the obvious disparity of the level of play between Europe and MLS.
While he laments his personal experience in MLS as a player, the larger issue for Wynalda now is that MLS has not progressed enough in terms of how they deal with their players.
"Things really haven't changed in terms of taking advantage of people. Where the money went back then and where it goes now, it is certainly not going into American players' pockets."
One particular area that perturbs the former striker is how MLS deals with transfer fees with the league reluctant to complete transfers, unless the player waives his FIFA-mandated ten percent cut of the transfer fee.
In addition to the transfer fee, the issues with MLS contract structure and the fact that many American soccer players play for very little money are well documented and have existed since the start of the league. Despite the growth of the league, these are problems that many, including Wynalda, feel continue to hold the league back today.
"The one thing that American players don't have is a transfer fee," Wynalda explained. "If you aren't transferring anywhere you aren't making any money."
"Players should be at the place where they are playing the highest level of soccer and making the most money," says Wynalda. "If you look at the players having success for our country now, where are they playing? Europe."
While there are a few anomalies within the current US national team camp including Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden, it is clear that players such as Michael Bradley, Charlie Davies, Benny Feilhaber, and Clint Dempsey have developed more than their MLS counterparts.
It is indisputable soccer is still a growing sport in the United States and changes cost money, but Wynalda feels that MLS is often hurting its own player's development.
There have been a number of cases where top MLS talent has had an opportunity to play in Europe only to see MLS turn down the transfer opportunity, with one of the more recent cases being that of current MLS midfielder Sacha Kljestan who had an offer from Scottish giants Celtic at the beginning of this season,
The league decided to decline their offer for the youngster and since that time, Kljestan struggled, causing him to fall off Bob Bradley's radar for the remainder of qualifying - a fall off that Wynalda believes is no coincidence.
"I know I get a lot of heat about this from the commissioner and from people who think I am saying bad stuff about the league, but I am just defending the players. We have players in our league that need that next level."
"He could have been a millionaire, but now he is going to come home and play for one tenth of what he could have made! Then we expect him to be happy and do his job?"
"When he got denied that opportunity, I don't blame him at all for falling off the face of the earth, and I feel bad, because his game suffered and his psyche suffered a great deal, and I didn't think he deserved that."
No one, including Wynalda, denies the growth of the MLS as a league, and the overall improvement of the quality of talent in the league. Despite this growth, Wynalda contends that the league needs to realize and embrace its role as a developmental league, and focus on creating opportunities for its best players.
"Every manager in MLS needs to understand that his job is to make the environment the best that he can possibly make for a player to get better for his club now and for the future, understanding the entire time that each one of those players have aspirations to take it to the next level and it is his job to make that happen."
After retiring from professional soccer in 2002, Wynalda stayed relatively quiet for a few years before joining ESPN as a soccer analyst where he covered World Cup 2006 as well as MLS. Although around soccer, the native of California did not feel comfortable working as an analyst.
"I wanted to get out of television," the one-time San Diego Nomad admitted. "ESPN was not my dream job. I don't like sitting in a booth throwing rocks at my friends. I don't like being away from my family and kids."
After the brief stint as a soccer analyst, Wynalda joined Fox Soccer Channel to be the co-host of Fox Football Fone-In this past year. Thus far he feels the job is perfect for him because he gets paid to watch soccer and share his opinion, something he has always done anyway.
While he describes his current position as a dream job, he did hint at the possibility of eventually trying his luck at coaching. However, do not expect to see him on the sidelines of an MLS team anytime soon.
"I am not comfortable with the way it is in MLS right now," he allowed. "I can't ask a guy to work for me and to believe that he can accomplish something and pay him peanuts.
"Then I'm going to give it all to David Beckham? I'm going to ask kids making forty thousand dollars a year to take a five thousand dollar pay cut just so I can give a millionaire a couple hundred grand more, no way!"
While he will undoubtedly continue to play a relevant role in the soccer world in some shape or form in the future, Wynalda's impact on US soccer has already been huge - to say the least.