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Bonus restrictions need overhaul
by Ridge Mahoney, August 28th, 2009 8:15PM
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It's not one of the major points of negotiation while MLS and the players' union discuss a new collective bargaining agreement, but something has to be done about the financial strictures placed on international competitions.

Reviewing the staggering sums paid to teams in the Champions' League, Euro version, reminds us what a low-ball event is the Concacaf version. Recalling last year's snippy comments from MLS commissioner Don Garber regarding the decision by Houston and New England players to share the proceeds paid out to the SuperLiga champion and runner-up reminds us how onerous the league can be when it comes to compensation.

These tournaments pit MLS teams against foreign clubs, and a league that trumpets its success in glorified friendlies like the All-Star Game has no rational reason not to let ownership groups sweeten the pot if it might motivate players, and their coaches, a bit more.

These are not league games, and only in the case of SuperLiga do MLS teams play each other during the initial phase, which is a competitive anomaly that should be changed but that's for another day. If for the CCL Houston offers bigger bonuses to its players than does Hunt Sports Group for the Crew, well, that's a management decision and shouldn't be subject to MLS purview.

The league doesn't want a potential prize to be greater than the bonus paid to the MLS Cup champion, which in its eyes devalues league play, but that's what happens in many cases for teams in the European Champions' League, Copa Libertadores, etc. Most MLS coaches are compelled to field their strongest teams for league matches and handle the international games, as well as the U.S. Open Cup, as best they can with mixed squads of regulars and backups.

Foreign teams, as well as those in the USL, often reverse the formula, which is one reason Montreal and Puerto Rico Islanders did so well in the 2008-09 Concacaf Champions' League and struggled a bit in league play. New England and Chivas USA fielded a lot of backup players and were eliminated head-to-head in the CCL by, respectively, Joe Public (Trinidad & Tobago) and Tauro FC (Panama). That's embarrassing, especially in the case of the Revs, beaten 6-1 on aggregate.

While bigger squads would help, in most cases the issue is use of resources, not size of rosters, as Houston has proved the past three years by maintaining a competitive edge across domestic and international platforms.

Concacaf raked in a lot of money this summer during the Gold Cup, and while it must fund its operations and competitions and development programs in many countries, even nominal bonuses for getting out of the first round and advancing through each knockout phase would be of some merit, and for players on the lower rungs of MLS rosters, would be money much appreciated. More importantly, bonuses are tangible reinforcement and reward for success, and isn't that the point of professional sport in the first place?

Garber has already stated that SuperLiga will go forward in 2010, though Mexican teams have the option to decline participation, and those that do are paid an appearance fee as is the case for teams playing exhibitions in the USA. MLS teams keep the gate receipts for SuperLiga games, some of which draw good crowds, certainly better than the average attendance for a CCL game, except, of course, those featuring Mexican teams. Yet not every Mexico-USA matchup guarantees a good gate.

In most MLS cities, midweek games of any sort remain a tough sell, and it's up to the teams to decide if such games are part of season-ticket packages. Attendances are trending downwards this season due to the economic crunch, yet a crowd of 8,834 at RFK Stadium Wednesday to see Toluca play D.C. United, which has a long history of international competition, is depressing.

"The ratings have been terrific on Univision and they're an important part of our league's future," said Garber of the SuperLiga matches. "As long as we have this energy against Mexican opponents and as long as we have this prize money, those games are going to be in our calendar."

Ah, the prize money, that million-dollar pot of which, by league decree, only 15 percent goes to players on the winning team and 10 percent is paid to the runner-up. Garber rebuked the New England and Houston players last year after they chose to pool their shares, and MLS Players' Union executive director Bob Foose engaged league officials in a debate over whether such monies were subject to MLS restrictions amid verbiage of what is a "compulsory" tournament, and what is "non-compulsory." I don't think they ever did straighten that out, except the league got its way, not surprisingly.

The MLSPU doesn't have much leverage dickering about the next collective bargaining agreement, given the economic climate and the fact the league will be adding dozens of player slots in the next two years when it adds three expansion teams. And issues of minimum salary, retirement benefits, and length of guaranteed contracts are of high priority. Some form of free agency within the league, which would contravene the base philosophy of founding a single-entity operation, isn't likely unless tightly restricted.

But letting teams reward their players for competitions outside of league play makes sense. Why not permit the teams so inclined to reward their players as they see fit?


  1. Clayton Berling
    commented on: August 28, 2009 at 7:52 p.m.
    Ultimately the game is about the players (and maybe the coaches, too) and, without them, there is no game or league or tournament. Everything possible needs to be done to reward them for their efforts. I do not mean to minimize the needs of owners, investors or other services related to the presentation, but the main focus must be on those who perform. This is true in all entertainment presentations of which this game is just one. To not think in those dimensions is unthinkable. If the game is to find its ultimate place in our cultural sphere, then its performers need to be thought of FIRST, not last!
  1. R.a. Vizcarra
    commented on: August 31, 2009 at 2:45 a.m.
    If the NASL was run by soccer enthusiasts with total disregard for fiscal responsibility, MLS is the complete opposite, as it appears to be run by Accountants. I have been a fan of MLS and the LA Galaxy since its inaugural season, and the league has always been overly cautious about overextending itself financially. I think this the NASL going under created some type of post-traumatic-stress syndrome on the owners and League bosses to the point it seems the fear of repeating the failure of that league is almost paralyzing. When the league began, it attracted some high caliber players, like Valderrama, Etcheverry, Cienfuegos, and watching them play was a treat. However it seems that after that initial burst of talent, the league took mediocrity to new highs, and failed to attract similar quality players as the ones mentioned above. I actually lost interest at the Galaxy and other team wallowed in boring, unimaginative play. It wasn't until the Bechham experiment, and other players like Schellotto and Blanco joined the league that play quaility improve and my interest soared. What is obvious to many seems obscure the owners and league bosses, people want to see exciting quality play, which requires quaility players, which require quality salaries. It can be done cautiously, like the DP rule, but it must be progressive. It must get better every year, or valuable, fragile momentum is lost. They need to set a calendar back in the Main Headquarters, and each year raise the salary caps and salaries of players, and when MLS teams start wining in Mexico consistently and attracting better players, the ratings will manifest, the sponsors will manifest and the tv deals will manifest. Its a no-brainers, except for penny-pinching accountants. Garber, do us a favor and move on. You have done what you could and reached your plateau. Thanks for the memories.

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