[MLS] By 5 p.m. Eastern Friday, Jimmy Conrad will know either security and stability, or the exciting unease that comes with being unemployed.
"I feel like a true American," the defender said this week as the days ticked off on a Friday deadline by which time his current employer, Sporting Kansas City, and he had to agree on a new contract to replace the one that has run its course.
“For me personally, I’m going to do my due diligence here with Kansas City and try to find a number that’s suitable for both parties. Maybe we’re on the same page, maybe not. If not, then I can go out into the market and see what’s out there.”
In the past, an MLS player out of contract would still be encumbered within the league, as a team retained rights to players even if they were out of contract or their options had been declined. In the new era of MLS, those players can choose to participate in the Re-Entry Draft, to be conducted in two stages starting next week.
“With those rules in force, all of the teams – not just us – will be making decisions about players in different ways,” says Kansas City’s director of soccer and head coach Peter Vermes. “Some of the new rules may be detrimental to us and in other ways may benefit us. With the Re-Entry Draft, players may become available to us who their current team may not be willing to keep at a certain price. We might get hurt by it and we could also get boosted by it.
“I can’t really predict around it because it’s going to be new to all of us. I do know that it’s going to be a very interesting time. It’s going to be incredible because we’ve never experienced anything like this environment before.”
Eligible for the Re-Entry Draft are the following categories of players: those at least 23 with at least three years’ league experience whose options were declined; and out of contract players who have not received a “Bonafide Offer,” and who are at least 25 with four years’ experience (25+4), or at least 30 with eight years’ experience (30+8). The latter classifications stipulate conditions of what constitutes a Bonafide Offer -- too complicated to include here -- which if the player declines gives his current club right of first refusal if he agrees to terms with a club that has drafted him. If no such offer is tendered, the player goes into the Re-Entry Draft unencumbered.
“If Kansas City is willing to pay me 5 percent more than my last contract, they retain my rights,” explains Conrad. “If I go into the Re-Entry Draft and a team picks me in Stage 1, they would have to offer me that 5 percent more. If I didn’t get picked in the first round, I would go through the Re-Entry Draft again [Stage 2] and that would be just for my rights. Before then me and my representation would be talking with teams who maybe had the first few picks in the draft to see if they have any interest, and try to create a good situation for both parties.”
In Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft, to be held Wednesday, players out of contract or with declined options are eligible to be claimed by other teams, which will pick in reverse order of their 2010 finish. Expansion teams Vancouver and Portland at the bottom of the pecking order.
“It provides a real check-and-balance on the teams,” says agent Richard Motzkin, whose clients include Landon Donovan. “Even if it’s slightly more than they want to pay, they may feel it’s worth it to pick up the option, whereas in the past, they could keep the rights to the player and he’d either have to agree to a reduced salary or find options outside of MLS.”
As of Thursday, more than 40 players had been classified as eligible for Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft. Conrad’s Kansas City teammate Josh Wolff and Houston goalie Pat Onstad are two longtime veterans whose options have been declined. In addition to establishing the Re-Entry Draft, the new collective bargaining agreement stipulates relatively brief intervals by which teams that decline options on players must renegotiate a new deal or risk losing those players in the Re-Entry Draft. The first of those windows closes Friday; there are other windows between the drafts during which teams can negotiate to re-sign their players, and also agree to sign-and-trade deals.
“It definitely gives some control of your future to the player, so that’s exciting,” says Conrad, a 12-year veteran of MLS play with San Jose and Kansas City. “Not everything is dictated by the club or MLS, you can exercise some freedom in some capacity. If you want to make a move you probably could, depending on what leverage you have. If you want to be in a certain market you can probably make that happen.”
Just as importantly, no longer can a team retain rights to a player indefinitely while awaiting a trade offer, as occurred last winter with goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. He endured months in limbo before Kansas City traded him to FC Dallas, for which he performed spectacularly as FCD reached its first MLS Cup. Hartman’s case received a lot of attention due to his stature – he is the league’s all-time leader in shutouts and minutes played and won two MLS Cups with the Galaxy – but numerous players have been shackled by the league’s rules in its 15-year history. The new rules force teams to either re-sign a player or risk losing him rather quickly.
“It allows for players to have more certainty and more options at an earlier date,” says Motzkin. “In a way, what this really does is provide the players whose options are not picked up a way to find out what their true value is in the marketplace, whether it’s the option price or another number. It truly allows them to get to the team they want to get to.
“It’s definitely a real opportunity that didn’t exist before.”