As MLS begins, Wynalda, league debate season, incentives
NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) – Eric Wynalda’s bravado and brash
attitude were regularly on display for the United States national
team in the ’90s and as one of the pioneers of MLS in its formative
Now renowned as the most controversial soccer analyst in the
country, he may be getting even more attention as a critic of the
league than he did as a star forward on its pitches.
One of the most outspoken figures in the annals of U.S soccer,
Wynalda was back to making headlines during an offseason filled
with personal – and publicly aired – long-held complaints about
fundamental MLS operations.
As a new MLS season begins this weekend – its 17th, to tie the
defunct North American Soccer League – with the addition of a
franchise in Montreal as the league’s 19th team, there is every
reason for MLS to pound its chest. Instead, it spent much of the
offseason listening to one of its former stars rail against its
“Sometimes they need to listen,” said Wynalda, now an analyst
for Fox Soccer. “That’s part of their growth process.”
The offseason bombast peaked during a speech at the National
Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in January.
Wynalda had the soccer world buzzing on Twitter as his presentation
turned into something resembling an act on a Charlie Sheen tour, a
rant sprinkled with profanity to explain his thoughts on
incentivizing player contracts and shifting the timing of the MLS
Wynalda’s criticisms came after several attempts to become a
coach or technical director for an MLS team. These days, however,
his persona plays out more like Bill O’Reilly than Bill
“My point at NSCAA was: Let’s stop complaining about us not
getting better as a soccer nation,” Wynalda said. “MLS is holding
us back. They don’t recognize that. That’s really the biggest part
of the problem. “
For all his bluster, Wynalda’s arguments may hold some merit.
MLS is about to start its longest calendar season yet, spanning
nine months from early March until the MLS Cup final on Dec. 1.
Wynalda suggested shifting to a European nine-month schedule,
spanning from August to May, with a winter break from mid-December
to the week after the Super Bowl.
The season would then resume in February, with playoffs and MLS
Cup stretching into June.
During his speech, Wynalda went as far as saying that Fox Sports
chairman David Hill told MLS commissioner Don Garber to change to
the European calendar to increase television ratings. MLS now has a
three-year contract with NBC after its deal with Fox Soccer
“I’m just trying to help here,” Wynalda said. “You can alleviate
the problem by just changing the schedule.”
This wasn’t the first time Wynalda claimed that a switch to a
Euro schedule would solve many of MLS’ issues. He’s discussed it on
a repeated basis behind the scenes in soccer circles since joining
the then-San Jose Clash after his two-club spell in Germany in
Yet, according to soccer insiders, MLS officials were debating
that very plan long before the league kicked its first ball.
“It was talked about a lot,” said Sunil Gulati, MLS’ deputy
commissioner until 1999 and current U.S. Soccer Federation
president. “When we were starting off, (the discussion was)
primarily weather driven. How do you do that in certain
“What was looked at early on was, when you have a number of
southern tier venues and down the road some soccer-specific
stadiums with under-soil heating, then you may be able to consider
that,” he said, before adding: “It’s not exactly a novel concept to
wake up one morning and say we should play on a European schedule
or this notion of incentive-based contracts.
“Obviously, that’s been around since Day One.”
MLS continues to research a change to the European calendar,
which would align the league with the summer and winter transfer
windows, something Wynalda thinks would be key to “engaging in the
business of soccer.”
Historically, teams have been somewhat unwilling to sell a key
player during the summer transfer window, which falls squarely in
the middle of the MLS season.
“Selling a player in the middle of the season is more difficult
for continuity reasons,” said Real Salt Lake general manager Garth
Lagerwey, an MLS goalkeeper from 1996-2000. “The argument that if
we’re on the same calendar and therefore our season would be
stopping and starting; I’d buy that.
“I think teams might be more willing to move players in the
summer if it wasn’t in the middle of the season.”
Still, that part of the business doesn’t seem to be enough to
constitute such a dramatic change.
“No one looks at the revenues of exporting the services of any
of our players as essential to the underlying business,” MLS
executive vice president Nelson Rodriguez said. “It’s a component
of the business, but it’s not a critical factor.”
More critical to the business would be a likely drop in
attendance during the colder months. That’s a major area of concern
for a league that also contends with extreme heat in some markets
during the summer.
“We are still working towards the building of what we call a
‘soccer nation,'” Rodriguez said. “Sure, there are a large number
of die-hard fans who would follow their clubs in any condition, but
we certainly don’t have the widespread appeal that would
necessarily follow that leap of faith as well.
“We’re cognizant of the fact that in July and August, it’s very
difficult to play in Houston or Dallas or some of our other markets
that suffer from high humidity or high heat. It’s not just cold,
but what we call ‘extreme weather.'”
Rodriguez was also quick to reference a comment from Eintracht
Frankfurt CEO Heribert Brunchhagen, who told the BBC in January
that “it’s ludicrous that we’re not playing between mid-May and
August. May and June are the best times for football.”
The German Bundesliga takes about a month off in the winter and
is a league Wynalda points to as a comparison for a switch.
Fortunately for MLS, it has the luxury of watching another
nation take the polar plunge. Russia’s Premier League, which
returned to action last weekend after a three-month winter break,
is in the midst of transitioning to the traditional European
“You see the quality of the fields is extremely poor, and the
biting wind and cold conditions,” Rodriguez said. “How does that
affect the quality of the enjoyment of the game for the in-stadium
spectator? We’re looking and we’re studying how things are going
for the next few years in the Russian league because we suspect we
would face a lot of that ourselves.
“It does us no good to move to this calendar if the quality of
And that just has to do with games. There are still numerous
other logistical, operational and business issues, from updating
training facilities to competition from other sports for fans’
MLS has entrenched itself in the domestic sports landscape
opposite baseball, NASCAR and the WNBA for a large portion of its
season, with the playoffs bleeding into the start of the NFL,
college football, NBA and NHL seasons. A switch would mean going
head-to-head with that group in hopes that the weather of the
warmer months would be a bonus to draw better attendance and
television ratings for the playoffs.
Of the 19 MLS teams, seven are in markets that have at least one
team in each of the four major sports leagues. The New York market
is the biggest and – by far – most cluttered with a staggering 11
franchises, including MLS’ Red Bulls and the Liberty of the
“We have to look at the other sports, we have to look at the
global soccer calendar, and the impact that those events may have
on our league season,” Rodriguez said.
Wynalda’s other hot-button topic is incentivizing contracts in a
way that will not only foster competition on game day, but during
“Incentivizing the starting 11 is going to make the players on
the outside looking in try a little bit harder,” Wynalda said. “It
also makes the guys who made the starting 11 last week ply their
trade a little bit better because they have to keep their spot
because it has a monetary value.
“Practices will mean a lot more.”
MLS’ standard contract bonuses that are included in every deal
incentivize individual achievement rather than team excellence. The
rewards can vary from $5,000-$20,000, including bonuses for: making
26 starts; team or defensive MVP; Rookie of the Year; All-Star
team; and MLS Best XI.
Additionally, bonuses included in an individual’s contract are
factored against a team’s salary cap for the following season. This
year’s cap is at $2.81 million, increasing to $2.95 and $3.1 over
the remaining two years of the current CBA.
“If it affects the cap, then you’re rewarding people for failure
and punishing people for success,” Wynalda said.
The movement to incentivize teams ahead of individuals is
starting to take place.
Salt Lake is one of a number of clubs that’s already instituted
a team-based bonus structure. Dubbed a “start-win,” it pays players
named to a winning starting lineup.
“It’s very consistent with our core philosophy because our team
is the star,” Lagerwey said. “We don’t have bonuses for if you
score a goal or if you make a big play, but if our team wins and
you’re a big part of that, there’s a bonus attached to that.”
Likewise, the CBA between the players’ union and MLS also has a
“win bonus” among its incentives.
Each regular season win is rewarded with $4,500, and,
traditionally, a players-only meeting decides how it’s shared
amongst the team. That’s an increase of $1,750 from the previous
CBA, which expired in January 2010.
The same is true for all the other bonuses, including the MLS
Cup Winner ($200,000) and runner-up ($70,000); Supporters Shield
winner ($50,000); regular season conference champion ($30,000); and
playoff teams ($20,000).
Similarly, the U.S. Open Cup champion gets $100,000 (set and
paid by US Soccer), with the runner-up getting $50,000, the Canada
Cup champion earns $50,000 and the Pan-Pacific champion takes 50
percent of any prize money.
There’s also a bonus structure regarding CONCACAF Champions
League – which explains the emphasis some teams put on a tournament
that has yet to be won by an MLS side – and SuperLiga, which wasn’t
contested last year. Those numbers range from $300,000 for a
championship in either tournament to $2,000 per preliminary win in
the Champions League.
As RSL and other clubs are becoming creative in how they
structure team-focused bonuses into contracts, MLS is exploring
options to make it a league-wide initiative.
“We are now examining ways to do that as a collective, which is
one of the advantages we have of being single entity,” said Lino
DiCuollo, MLS’ vice president of player relations and competition.
“We can put aside a bunch of money to do that.
“We want to get players fighting hard to get into the 18 and
become a starter. We think that will be another element among many
to help the overall quality of the league to improve.”
MLS has taken many hits over the years for doing things
different than the rest of the world, but the league has shown a
willingness to change. For 2012, the league altered its playoff
format so teams from their respective conference are represented in
the final. An even more significant possibility could involve
having the MLS Cup final played at the site of the highest
remaining seed – as opposed to a neutral venue – thus putting more
of an onus on the regular season.
It may also provide a barometer to weather questions, depending
on which team advances.
While Wynalda insists MLS isn’t listening, Rodriguez and the
actions of the league seem to indicate otherwise.
“It’s important to have a contrarian point of view, and there
are many times where I think Eric’s underlying points have merit,”
Rodriguez said. “We as a league would like from time-to-time that
Eric not allow facts get in the way of truth.
“I would caution him to say that we ignore issues or that we’re
not listening to him in particular. I don’t think that’s true. I
personally have engaged Eric on a couple of projects over the years
to solicit his input.
“On balance, I think Eric is good for the league and good for
the sport. I would just caution him and those who listen to him,
that it isn’t quite as simplistic as sometimes it seems.”
While the concept of incentivizing seems to be actively
evolving, the question of Wynalda’s suggested schedule change
remains. Is MLS willing to gamble all the hard work and growth it’s
enjoyed over the last 16 years on the unknown? Is it even worth
trying, knowing that failure could be irreversible?
“I think it would be a big challenge to play games in Utah any
earlier than we already do,” Lagerwey said. “To me, changing the
schedule is a little bit of a red herring in the sense you can play
an August-May schedule and take a 21/2 month break in the winter,
and have the same exact season we have now.”
Nicolino DiBenedetto is a sports writer for STATS. Write to him
at ndibenedetto(at)stats.com or on Twitter nicolino11.