by RYAN BRISTER
About a month ago, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber went on a public tirade against Jurgen Klinsmann. Garber was upset about comments Klinsmann had made about the league, and urged the USMNT head coach to support MLS’s vision for growth. Notably, Klinsmann had remarked on the form of Michael Bradley, which he felt had slipped since the midfielder left Serie A for MLS.
Now, Jeffrey Carlisle is reporting that Klinsmann has been nudging not just star players, but youth prospects in MLS academies, to explore their options in Europe. Several MLS owners are “irate” with Klinsmann for advising that young players bypass the domestic league entirely.
It is understandable that MLS would be upset about academy products never seeing the field. Academies are an investment, and the ideal is for that investment to eventually pay off via an impact on the field. The players capable of going to Europe are also the ones most prized by MLS clubs, furthering their frustration. But in most countries, clubs would be compensated when their youth talent goes elsewhere. In the U.S., a couple of forces make it more difficult for clubs to receive financial rewards for their youth development.
Firstly, NCAA eligibility rules prevent players from being paid for their play, by anyone. MLS clubs can’t pay the college players who are in their academies without those players losing their scholarships. Furthermore, the league can’t pay 16 and 17-year-olds who might go on to earn a college scholarship.
Even at the level of an MLS academy, the majority of players are not going to be able to make a significant career out of playing soccer professionally. A college scholarship is the most important thing many will get out of playing soccer, and even for successful players, it is a good fallback option. The low salaries for most MLS players leave them needing jobs after their playing careers. A talent like Harrison Shipp, who might win Rookie of the Year, spent four years at Notre Dame before going pro.
So where, in other countries, players are signed to professional contracts from a young age, MLS academy products are not. And it’s worth noting that MLS saves some money by not paying them under this arrangement. But when a high profile foreign team comes calling, MLS doesn’t get a transfer fee when their un-contracted academy prospects sign elsewhere. Real Salt Lake won’t see a dime from Manchester United, who just signed 17-year-old Josh Doughty from RSL’s academy. If Jordan Morris, who Klinsmann has brought to Europe twice with the national team, were to sign elsewhere, the Sounders would get nothing from it.
Even with the NCAA preventing MLS clubs from getting their academy players under contract, there are rules in place to reward academies and other such sides. Clubs who play a part in a player’s development between the ages of 12 and 23 are entitled to up to five percent of his future transfer fees, under article 21 of FIFA’s transfer regulations. If Morris signs in Europe and were to one day be sold for the $4 million that DeAndre Yedlin was sold for, the Sounders could in theory pocket up to $200,000.
But the Sounders can’t get that sort of money from a future sale, for Morris or any other player they’ve developed. The USSF does not follow FIFA’s regulations in providing solidarity payments to developmental sides when one of their players is sold. U.S. law, it seems, prevents youth clubs from profiting off of foreign transactions. In the past, this quirk in the rules has worked in MLS’s favor, as the league hasn’t had to share transfer fees with the amateur clubs who helped to produce players like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. But as the league takes an increasing role in the development of youth players, it may not get its just rewards.
There appears to be no easy solution to the conflict between MLS and Jurgen Klinsmann. The USMNT coach has every right to advise American players on what he feels is best for their careers, and it’s clear that Klinsmann believes Europe is best. Owners rightly frustrated by a system in which outside forces make it more difficult for the league’s investment in development to pay off financially. But until MLS can provide more of its academy players a worthwhile professional alternative to college, the league’s problems are going to continue.