Foreign players no longer untouchable

Franco Neill: formerly of D.C. United. Rafael Gomes: signed in preseason, cut by the Rapids before the Fourth of July. Eloy Colombano, acquired in the summer of 2007, dumped by Kansas City less than a year later. Guilherme So and Nicolas Hernandez -- one an MLS newcomer, the other an MLS veteran in his third season -- set free by Columbus. The era of expanded opportunities for MLS foreign players is also a new age of vulnerability.

No longer are the three or four or five international players per team roster assured of preferential treatment; with teams allotted eight and also free to trade the slots, foreign players aren't all that different than their domestic counterparts if they don't rate guaranteed contracts, and far fewer of them sign those deals than in the early days of MLS.

"That's another thing that's going to have to change; the mentality that was around when I was playing, that if you signed a foreign player, he was not only going to be a starter, but a star," says RSL coach Jason Kreis, whose roster features six international players and three others of foreign vintage who count as domestic products. "If he was anything less than that, it was a disappointment. That's not the way it has to be any more. We need to be signing quality players to raise the overall level and the competition, so there's no guarantee that those guys will be starting."

As in the cases of Neill, Colombano, Gomes, So and Hernandez, their contracts were "semi-guaranteed," meaning that if a team released them by July 1, those salaries are wiped off their books. Other moves are possible before the close of business Tuesday as teams try to shed salaries so midseason changes can be facilitated.

During preseason, Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo had projected Gomes as a starter but the emergence of Nick LaBrocca ($12,900) made Gomes ($120,000) easy to dismiss after several mediocre performances and perhaps freed up some salary to reward the rookie.

Trades involving midfielders Kerry Zavagnin and Sasha Victorine have been discussed, yet Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo says no more moves are necessary to fit U.S. international Josh Wolff under the cap. Terms of his deal have yet to be made public; he earned a base salary of $350,000 in 2006.

"There aren't a lot of things you can do in this league to significantly improve your team," says Onalfo, "because of the salary cap and our rules. You have to draft well, you have to develop players, and when you get a chance to get a national-team player of his caliber and abilities, you have to grab it."

MLS has confirmed Wolff's return to MLS following one-and-a-half seasons in Germany with 1860 Munich. He left in January, 2007, after letting his MLS contract expire, and so the Wizards retained his rights within the league. (If MLS had sold him in a transfer, he'd have been classified as an allocation.) In 34 matches with 1860, he scored just two goals and recorded seven assists.

Los Angeles needs to find cap room, as well, to shore up its backline, with striker Carlos Ruiz being offered to San Jose and at least one other team, according to a source. But his high salary ($460,000) and commitments to the Guatemalan national team have impaired efforts to move him.

Until it clears space and a roster slot, the Galaxy can't officially acquire Argentine defender Eduardo Dominguez. Several Spanish-language outlets reported last week that Dominguez has left his last club, Huracan, to sign with MLS, about a month after contact between the parties had been initiated.

The Red Bulls will sign Venezuelan national team midfielder Jorge Rojas after he completes a physical on Tuesday. Rojas, 31, has played in Colombia as well as his native country, and comes to MLS after working out a release with Maracaibo, which has run into financial difficulties and owes Rojas and several other players money.

By expanding the number of foreign-player slots but not greatly increasing the salary cap ($2.18 million per team this season according to a source with one of the teams) MLS hasn't cast the doors wide-open to an influx of foreign players, since they command higher salaries than most domestic products and won't fit so easily under the cap. Still, Colombano had been playing for a $63,000 base salary, so Kansas City didn't clear much space by waiving him.

Teams can go over the salary cap by using allocation money to acquire players and pay salaries, yet only Toronto and San Jose and a few other teams have any major dollars to play with. Columbus reportedly used the allocation money it received for missing the playoffs last year to re-sign midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto to a richer contract after paying him about $400,000 last year. But by waiving So ($59,000) and Hernandez ($99,999.99!), it has cleared a fair bit of room. Cap space can also be used in transactions.

A few executives, such as Galaxy president Alexi Lalas, believe - at least publicly - there shouldn't be any limits at all. "How can we make things much simpler and easier?'" he asks rhetorically. "We all know how, but we're not going to do it."

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