MLS's waiver system is used to rid teams of unwanted players - and force others to take pay cuts if they want to remain.
More than two dozen players waived, none claimed. A rather benign beginning to the offseason, one might think.
Far from it. The list of those waived includes one of the most productive players in league history, a once-promising American who never took root in the pro game, and all manner of disappointments, young and old and in-between (see list in For the Record, page 26).
The belt-tightening has begun. Budgets for 2002 have not been formally approved, but several sources have said teams will have roughly the same numbers to play with: A salary range from $24,000 to $260,000 and a per-team cap of about $1.7 million.
Striker Raul Diaz Arce, No. 3 all-time in points, was the biggest name - and the biggest salary - to be jettisoned.
Colorado needs the cap room to accommodate Carlos Valderrama's maximum salary next season; by cutting Diaz Arce and three other players, including the team's all-time leading scorer Paul Bravo, the Rapids are about $250,000 under the cap.
"Looking at our needs to create cap room, we need to make an adjustment," said Rapids head coach Tim Hankinson. "We've had a conversation with Raul about a reduction in salary, but I think it was appropriate to go through waivers to see if another team would take him at his number. No one was picked up, so his contractual situation will be re-addressed."
Which means if he wants to stay in MLS, Diaz Arce will have to take a pay cut.
As early as 1999, Diaz Arce's days were numbered.
"He can't stay in the league much longer at that salary, unless he's scoring a [bunch] of goals," said then-San Jose director of soccer Renato Capobianco several days after Diaz Arce was traded from the Clash to Tampa Bay.
A few months before, Diaz Arce had signed a long-term deal with MLS that raised his salary to more than $200,000 in the first season and now pays him nearly the league maximum.
The second-leading goal scorer in league history has been traded three times in the past three seasons. Tampa Bay sent him to D.C. United in May 2000 and D.C. moved him to Colorado earlier this year.
"I would definitely like to keep Raul around," said MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who oversees all player matters. "There's an emphasis this year in keeping players [who] are value for money. It's not a question of whether Raul is good enough. It's whether his salary makes sense for the league."
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. Offseason waivers can be used by teams to save money and by the league to punish teams that don't save money.
A player waived during the offseason no longer counts against a team's salary cap. Teams can also use waivers to rehire players at a lower salary. An unclaimed player can be brought back into MLS at a lower salary.
If a player is claimed off waivers, however, the claiming team picks up the player's current salary.
Teams must be compliant with the salary cap as of Jan. 1.
There are also penalties to pay. If a player who was on the roster the previous November is waived the following spring, MLS imposes a penalty against the team's salary cap of $5,000 plus any associated costs.
The logic justifying this draconian measure is that by keeping a player on its roster additional months a team costs MLS money.
"This is basically to force coaches and general managers to make the hard decisions now," said Hankinson. "It's better to take a serious look at your roster and clear out slots in preparation for the draft. The league feels there's no reason to renew a 'maybe' player. Pick the guys you know you're going to keep."
SPECIAL CASES. Injuries affected Colorado's other waiver choices. Lance Key and Bravo are coming off injury-marred seasons and Geoff Aunger suffered a career-ending injury that will require a settlement.
The Tampa Bay Mutiny began its extensive housecleaning by waiving four players. Dallas parted ways with Miles Joseph, a former U.S. Olympian who fought a bad run of injuries and could never establish himself.
By waiving Dario Brose, the Quakes can funnel more money to the many players who played vital roles in their championship season. Brose cost the team about $75,000 against the cap and played only nine minutes because of knee and hip-flexor injuries.
The MetroStars' Billy Walsh took the head coaching position with Manhattan College last winter and would have a hard time keeping that job in another MLS city.
In all cases, regardless of circumstances, teams have to keep an eye on the bottom line.
"In the case of a late-waiving player, you really get down to pennies," said Hankinson. "I cry over the calculator daily."
by Soccer AmericaSenior Editor Ridge Mahoney