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Gastelum: MLS needs to pay up (Oct. 13)

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, October 13, 2011

To some, American soccer sounds like an oxymoron. To others, it is at the same level with the WNBA and the Denny’s PBA Tour. But to those real football fans, it is an entertaining disappointment that doesn’t know its full potential.

Yet the biggest limitation of Major League Soccer is not the lack of interest from the American public — just take a look at the Portland Timbers crowd.

And its not a lack of the talented home-grown players either — both FC Dallas midfielder Brek Shea and New York defender Tim Ream are in their early 20s and have garnered interest from European clubs.

In fact, the biggest restraint to the growth of the MLS is the MLS.

Long gone are the days of signing famous has-beens who are over 30-years old, much to MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s chagrin. Too long have teams relied on signing players far past their primes to make a quick buck while sacrificing long-term gain and global respect — see Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez and Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

For the MLS to advance, teams need to go overseas and sign young, top-level players like Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who just signed with Barcelona, and French midfielder Samir Nasri, who was picked up by Manchester City.

But that is much easier said than done. The question is: How can an American team draw European players to start their careers in the MLS, not finish them?

Kids all around Europe grow up playing soccer in the streets and playgrounds at a very young age and are immersed in a soccer culture from the very beginning. The dream is to play for the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds of the world, not the Vancouver Whitecaps or the Houston Dynamo.

So how does the MLS go about attracting the world’s best young talent? The answer to that question is the same thing that led one of the world’s most popular players, Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o, to play for Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia.

It certainly wasn’t for a beachfront property or the chance to play in a more competitive league. There are 28.8 million green reasons why the former Barca and Inter superstar went to the middle of Russia.

Eto’o’s salary guarantees him $28.8 million per season, which is $10 million more than what Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo makes at Real Madrid.

And that is to go to Russia, where there is no New York or Los Angeles to feed the superstar ego.

The MLS needs to spend money to be successful. If the league sticks a huge contract in front of a prospect who struggles to make money at the European academies, then the league’s talent pool will still rely on foreign talent, but it will be younger foreign talent that can build the league into a global superpower.

But this is where the administration gets involved and hinders its own potential by instituting the designated players rule. The rule limits all MLS teams to three players that can make over $400,000 per year, which means the majority of MLS players make less than 1 percent of Eto’o’s yearly salary.

This rule single-handedly prevented Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka and Brazilian icon Ronaldinho from coming to the MLS in their primes and creating a buzz around the league that has never been seen before.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu