MLS’s strange spending practices

Major League Soccer is dropping money to bail players out of European stints gone south, while they are so reluctant to spend big dollars to pay players that have been a success here at home. And it bothers me.

We have watched many talented MLS players over the years encouraged to play out their contracts and seek greener pastures abroad by the league’s alligator-armed approach to the renegotiation process. I have been in rooms, and been a part of conversations (ones you don’t read about), where I witnessed this strategy of trying to spend as little as possible to keep talent at home. It is actually quite impressive. The front office is renowned for its ability to drive down salaries when it knows a player wants to sign and has little bargaining power. It’s the genius of single entity without free agency. That is why I am baffled when MLS takes such a polar opposite approach when it comes to bringing someone in to the league.

Benny Feilhaber is the latest in the long line of players who have prospered from this inconsistency in business strategy. Benny was a very talented player from a young age; I know first hand from watching him play for the younger team in the same club I played for in Fairfield County. He was earmarked early for greatness. After shining in the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships in Netherlands, Hamburger SV of the German Bundesliga took interest and lured him to Europe after only two years at UCLA.

What followed was a fluctuating few years that saw amazing highlights, such as his cracking goal against Mexico in the Gold Cup, alongside lowlights: only appearing nine times for Hamburg in 2007 due to injury and lack of form. His tremendous potential and goal of a lifetime volley against Mexico lead to Derby County signing the promising young talent to join them in their Premier League campaign later that very summer.

This is what most American players dream of, a chance to shine on soccer’s biggest stage. Unfortunately it did not pan out as Benny would have hoped. He only appeared 10 times for the Rams, and after the team’s eventual relegation, they let him leave on a free transfer.

After that, Benny found a suitor in Danish Superliga club AGF Aarhus. In his first season there he struggled to stay fit and the team found itself relegated to the second division; not where Benny saw himself when he left for the European promise land. That is the breaks in professional soccer, however, and I give him a lot of credit for taking a shot at it.

Here is where things get hazy. Knowing all of that, why would Major League Soccer bust out a $400,000 salary (I know it doesn’t sound huge, but for MLS that is as big as it gets outside DP land) for a constantly injured player who is stuck in a league that pales in comparison to MLS? With no big clubs knocking on his door, and MLS being an upgrade from his current situation, it would appear obvious Feilhaber was desperate to come back home. Why then did the league suddenly lose its uncanny ability to bring players to the lowest acceptable number when it knows that player has little options?

It’s a little unfair that I am singling out Feilhaber here, but it just so happens that he is the latest example of MLS making me feel like I am taking crazy pills. To be honest, I think Benny is an outstanding player. I enjoy watching him play, and feel that he has much more to offer our national team than we have seen so far. Additionally, I am not the type of person who hates seeing people get paid. On the contrary, I think everyone should be making this salary and more. The reason this upsets me so much is because I have watched two dozen extremely talented players over the past decade who deserved this kind of contract, after years of successful performances in MLS, but were either shown the door or forced to re-sign for well under their value.

If I am trying to be fair and put myself in the league’s shoes, I can see why they thought this was a necessary move at this juncture. I have a lot of respect for Don Garber and know his job is not an easy one. I’m sure after this summer’s World Cup in South Africa he took a look at the rosters in Major League Soccer and found that only one player (Landon Donovan) who we just watched represent our country all summer was poised to suit up for the upcoming domestic season. I would imagine that a slight sense of panic followed that realization and quick action was taken in the form of Jay Demerit.

I don’t know all that goes on behind the doors of 420 Fifth Avenue, and I am sure there are many moving parts that I am not privy to that make the league’s moves appear more business-savvy. All I know is that we need to put an end to the misconception that playing abroad, regardless of which league and whether the player is actually seeing the field, makes someone more valuable in MLS. Names sell jerseys, but talent and good product build leagues.

The answer, however, is not to lower the amount of money paid to those who have gone abroad and now seek a return to MLS. These players are talented, help improve the league, and put people in the seats. The answer is to pay the players who become stars in MLS so they don’t have to chase money to second division clubs with names few have ever heard of, and even less can pronounce. Because more than anything, I love this league – our league – and want to see it prosper.

Kyle Martino is a former U.S. Men’s National team midfielder and Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year who provides analysis on FOX Soccer’s MLS broadcasts as well as FOX Soccer’s Super Sunday Plus.