Why the deck is stacked against lower-league stars' jump to MLS

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Molino. Ramirez. They've made the leap. But the reality of MLS makes them the exception, not the rule.

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As the USL and NASL continue to expand and mine for talent, there will be further examples of lesser-known players capable of shining on larger stages.

It makes sense, in both the short-term – FC Cincinnati’s Austin Berry is almost certainly good enough to be center back depth in MLS – and in the long-term. If players like Kevin Molino and Christian Ramirez can exist in the lower divisions, who else are we missing?

Does someone want to play in MLS badly enough to take a pay cut? If you’re a fringe MLS roster guy and [the NASL is] paying you $100,000, you think, ‘Why should I take $65,000 to sit the bench in MLS when I can make more and play in NASL?’ That’s the challenge.

- Mike Jacobs, assistant technical director, Sporting Kansas City

This is what columnist Matt Doyle argued last week, and I mostly agree. It’s part of the natural evolution when it comes to the expansion of the lower divisions, something FourFourTwo wrote about extensively just a couple weeks ago. But finding and signing players always go beyond whether a player is good enough. For now, MLS’ budgetary realities make it almost impossible for MLS teams to find value in the lower divisions. When – and if – they do find talent, there’s no guarantee the MLS teams will pay players better than those second-division squads.

Limited scouting resources, combined with a focus on increased homegrown production, pushes lower-division talent to a lower priority for most MLS teams. More significantly, the MLS roster rules and regulations severely hamstring the ability to sign any talent they may find.

As long as an MLS salary cap exists, it’s unlikely you see a ton of movement between divisions in the U.S. during the season.

“Very rarely do you see domestic teams pay transfer fees to other domestic clubs,” said Mike Jacobs, assistant technical director at Sporting Kansas City, who has helped build rosters for both the MLS and USL teams. “Most of the movement from players in the lower levels in MLS tends to happen in the offseason, when players are out of contract. For the players we’re talking about, that sweet spot for [Sporting Kansas City] is around the $65,000-75,000 [annual salary] range. But if find value and I have to pay a transfer fee, you’ve now changed the valuation of that player.”

The last part of Jacobs’ quote is the crux of the issue. If an MLS team sees a player it likes in Sacramento, for example, it may value that player as a depth option on a supplemental salary of $65,000. The player has value at that number. But if you add a minimal transfer fee to the move – let’s call it $25,000 – suddenly the cap hit comes in at $90,000. That changes the valuation.

At $90,000, a USL player is not likely to be as attractive. You want a $90,000 player to be a spot starter, not just a depth option. More than likely, that player is rated lower than other options in that escalated price point – especially if there is a foreign talent who is younger than a USL veteran.

Molino has made the jump from USL to MLS. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Here, we reach the second part of the argument. Why is a foreign player at $90,000 better than a USL or NASL player? Especially considering the additional value of an international roster spot. There’s a multifaceted answer here, including the fact that most foreign leagues are simply more advanced than the American soccer professional structure. But it’s less a valuation on the talent itself, and more a result of where those teams have scouted.

MLS teams don’t have massive scouting budgets yet. D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper, who has signed players like Lewis Neal and Rob Vincent out of the lower divisions, said the majority of those scouting resources are focused on the middle to upper-half of the roster – Designated Players and Targeted Allocation Money targets, especially. Teams therefore often have more knowledge about players abroad than they do on the players plying their trade right here in the lower divisions.

“I don’t think things are changing in the way teams are scouting in lower leagues,” Kasper said. “MLS teams that have their own USL teams are developing a lot of talent. Obviously, you look at New York (Red Bulls), they developed Aaron Long. I think MLS teams that have their own teams, they are looking to develop the next player for the first team, but they are mainly going after younger players. If you’re looking at the rosters in Cincinnati or Tampa Bay, those teams are looking at more established players to compete and try to win trophies that way. But the mission of MLS teams is to develop the next player for the first team, and that’s especially through academy guys.”

That is starting to change with the USL partnerships. Jacobs said the Swope Park Rangers technical staff has a deeper knowledge of the Western Conference USL teams because they play in that division. Often, they’ll be looking for players to bring in at the end of the season to sign to a USL contract. The goal of every player signed to a USL roster, however, is that they may one day advance to the first team.

That means those signings often skew younger, and that philosophy does not differ much from Europe. It’s quite hard to break back into the top division once you reach a certain point in your career. The investment often isn’t worth it compared to signing cheaper, younger players and developing them, which means there may be more than a few Jamie Vardy type of players missed in the lower divisions – especially if some NASL and USL teams tend to lean towards pros on the other side of 25.

“I think for us, the oldest player we acquired this past offseason for USL was 26,” Jacobs said. “With the idea we’re giving them one year to matriculate into the first team. Most often we’re looking for guys on our USL team that are 23 years of age or younger.”

Another point that shouldn’t be overlooked is that the pay is improving in the lower divisions. Top players like Miami FC’s Richie Ryan or Kwadwo Poku are paid far more handsomely than they would be in MLS. They are good enough to play in MLS, but why take a pay cut?

An agent with multiple clients in the lower division said the average NASL salary is around $50,000-60,000, which means a lot of top-end starters are making more than that, and thus more than they would in MLS. Last winter, I was told one player was offered a chance to take an MLS deal, but his USL deal came with a two-year guarantee versus one in MLS. That player opted for USL.

Asking a player to take a pay cut to move to MLS or less job security isn’t always going to work, and it certainly plays into the lack of movement between the divisions.

“It comes down to the valuation of the player from the club’s perspective and the player’s perspective,” Jacobs said. “Does someone want to play in MLS badly enough to take a pay cut? If you were at the Cosmos in New York, especially when they were killing it in the NASL, if you’re a fringe MLS roster guy and they are paying you $100,000, you think, ‘Why should I take $65,000 to sit the bench in MLS when I can make more and play in NASL?’ That’s the challenge.

“Whenever Peter [Vermes] signs an academy guy or someone who is signed to USL, he says those guys are betting on themselves. Sometimes you have to find guys in the lower leagues willing to take a little less to bet on themselves for a chance in MLS.”

If I were a betting man, I would say the teams that place more scouting resources in the lower divisions will be able to one-up their competition for some solid players. But I’d also put down a bet that it won’t happen for another few years.

Facebook Live Question of the Week

Ben Higham: USMNT Goalies.. do you think the veterans will make it to Russia? If not who do you think will take over GK? Jesse Gonzales? Hamid? Johnson?

As the Gold Cup ramps up this week, the goalkeeper depth chart remains one of the top unknowns for the Americans leading into Russia in 2018.

It’s fairly clear who is at the top: Tim Howard and Brad Guzan remain Nos. 1 and 2 on the depth chart. But the future of the position beyond that is a question mark. Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson are in Gold Cup camp right now, and both need to prove consistency in order to stake a claim for that No. 3 role. Hamid is probably the frontrunner, as it stands. But Jesse Gonzalez’s one-time switch, approved by FIFA last week, is a game-changer.

Gonzalez has been very good in MLS, and at 22 years old he’s still got plenty of growing to do at the pro level. While Hamid has been around longer, Gonzalez is starting to show he’s a consistent goalkeeper who can be relied upon in net. That may end up giving him the edge over the D.C. United goalkeeper.

At the very least, it gives the U.S. a legit competition beyond 2018. A Hamid-Gonzalez battle for the starting job in the 2022 cycle gives some confidence that the chain of American goalkeepers will continue once Howard and Guzan are ready to pass the torch. There has been a long line of American goalkeepers in that spot – Meola, Friedel, Keller, Howard, Guzan – and I think we’ll be talking about Hamid and now Gonzalez as the best options to continue that line in the future.

The Final Third

Dwyer impresses in U.S. debut

I said during my last Facebook Live chat that Dom Dwyer’s game is a perfect fit for the international level, and this weekend’s performance against Ghana has done nothing but reinforce that opinion. If Dwyer stays healthy, I think he’s going to win a spot on next year’s World Cup roster.

Dwyer is a physical forward capable of providing hold up play, but also with the pace to cause problems for center backs with his runs in and around the box. He has such a good understanding of how to get himself free for service, and he was often splitting Ghana’s back line and forcing it into tough choices. It’s the perfect style for a forward at the international level, and Dwyer almost plays like a mix between Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore. In other words, he’s a great option off the bench for both if the U.S. plays a 4-4-2, and he causes some headaches for Bruce Arena if they are in a one-forward lineup.

Dwyer’s goal also showed another important aspect of the forward’s game: he’s opportunistic in front of net. He pounces on those loose balls and always seems to end up in the right place at the right time. I have a feeling he’s going to have a very good Gold Cup and that we’ll see him on the qualifying roster in September.

Taking bets on the MLS playoffs

Anyone want to try to predict what the playoff picture looks like at the end of the season? Here are the teams that would be in if this season ended right now:

East: Chicago, Toronto, New York City FC, Orlando, Atlanta, Columbus

West: Sporting KC, FC Dallas, Portland, San Jose, Houston, LA Galaxy

In the East, just seven points separate eighth-place Philadelphia from fourth-place Orlando, and both Philly and seventh-place New York Red Bulls have two games in hand on Orlando. Montreal, meanwhile, is creeping up the standings, and D.C. United is nearing its annual summer roster work that usually springboards it into contention.

In the Western Conference, Seattle and Vancouver are creeping below LA by just a point, and Vancouver has a couple games in hand on fifth-place Houston and three games in hand on third-place Portland; the Whitecaps are just five points back of third place.

Tweet me what you think the playoff picture looks like at the end of the year. We can save those predictions for the end of the season. (I already made mine!)

Read(s) of the Week

We’ll start with a family note. My uncle, Paul Reosti, got an A1 feature in The Washington Post this week.

Maybe because I covered Clinton Portis in my days at the Post, but I found this a fascinating read in SI.

This was just unreal.

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