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How American Stars Return
by Ridge Mahoney, August 8th, 2008 4PM
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Let's hope that the return of Pat Noonan to MLS, albeit to the Crew instead of his former employer New England, turns out to be a win-win.

Of course, that might mean the Crew derailing the Revs from their quest to eradicate the stain of losing all four MLS Cups in which they've played, including the last three in a row, but it could also mitigate somewhat the absurdity of how he wound up in Columbus in the first place.

Noonan played out his MLS contract last year, freeing him to negotiate with any team in the world, except for New England's league rivals. League rules stipulate that in such a situation, a team retains rights to a player on its roster upon expiration of his contract if it makes a "reasonable" effort to re-sign him, even if that effort proves futile.

In the parlance of MLS, apparently, "reasonable" means any effort beyond offering an All-Star with 14 U.S. caps to his name a minimum contract, or a job sweeping up after games at Gillette Stadium. The Revs offered Noonan deal at roughly one-half the $225,000 base salary he earned in 2007, and given that New England had promising young Gambian attackers Kenny Mansally and Sainey Nyassi already in tow, and then-rookies Adam Cristman and Wells Thompson contributing significantly, its stance probably made sense from a business standpoint as well as a competitive one.

Yet there was nothing competitive about their renewal offer. Noonan played 119 league games in five seasons, scoring 37 goals and registering 29 assists. Injuries limited him to just 14 games during the 2006 season during which he scored only one goal, yet last year he played in 27 games and finished second in team scoring with seven goals and four assists.

Columbus gave up its first-round SuperDraft pick next year and some allocation money, and swapped places with New England in the allocation order to get Noonan.

"The chances of getting a player like Pat Noonan with a first-round draft pick are pretty slim, so we weren't concerned about it from that standpoint," says Crew coach Sigi Schmid, who wouldn't comment on the amount of allocation money that changed hands. "He can play out wide in midfield, he can play underneath the forwards, which I think is his best position, in an a pinch he can play up front in the role [Alejandro] Moreno plays for us, so he gives us plenty of options."

Last winter, Noonan joined former Rev teammate Adin Brown at Aalesunds in Norway, which reportedly agreed to a contract worth $400,000 annually. MLS has lost more than a dozen players to Scandanavian teams that pay much higher salaries than does the league, and MLS has adopted rules that prevent players from jumping to a foreign team for a short stay and heading right back.

OK, the league's single-entity system and other mechanisms are designed to prevent clubs from bidding against each other for talent. Although that would certainly be the case should more than one team be interested in the same Designated Player, for example, unless that player should be a U.S. international, in which case the allocation process is activated, which of course worked so well in the case of Brian McBride that Toronto, tops on the allocation ladder, sat on a deal for more than a month before grudgingly trading him to his hometown team, Chicago.

The allocation process is used to determine which MLS team has rights to a returning U.S. international, except in the case of a player like Noonan who is coming back less than two years from the expiration of his contract. In such a case, it seems, his club can limit his options for up to two years by making an offer only a Byzantine bureaucracy could label as "reasonable."

This is yet another matter the MLS Players Union needs to address, though hammering out terms of what constitutes a "reasonable" offer will be like trying to nail jelly to a tree, given the reluctance with which MLS produces financial figures. MLS created its player mechanisms in part to curtail competitive bidding and spiraling salaries.

It is protecting itself, if you will, but to level the playing field, and provide some measure of fairness to its players, MLSPU has to extract from the league a benchmark formula to guarantee that when teams bid to re-sign players, they bargain in good faith.

Some good-faith guidelines could help streamline the allocation process, too, which is gathering steam as Cory Gibbs (coveted by Los Angeles) and Eddie Lewis (Chivas USA?) negotiate their comebacks.

For the record, the three next in line for allocations are: 1. Los Angeles; 2. Colorado; and 3. New England (which exchanged its spot for Columbus' slot in the Noonan deal). That would seem to clear Gibbs' path to the Galaxy, except according to a source, Gibbs wants to play at HDC, but not for the Gals. But if there's one thing the Galaxy needs to defend better, it's better defenders.

Let the games, and the gamesmanship, begin.


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