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

years.

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

supposed flaws.

“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

season.

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

Parcells.

“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

expired.

“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

1996.

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

markets?

“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

calendar.

“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

play drops.”

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’

entertainment dollar.

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

WNBA.

“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

practice.

“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.