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Major League Soccer

MLS' Lowball Offers Could Undermine "Super" Draft

Despite the arrival of two expansion teams and bold proclamations about its successful 2014, MLS is making lowball offers to college underclassmen, including Jordan Morris, and may lose out on top talent.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
January 02, 2015
10:59 AM
FOR ALL OF THE TALK in the upper echelons of American soccer about getting the best amateur players in the United States into pro soccer, this winter there seems little inclination from Major League Soccer to put its money where its mouth is and actually sign the top amateur talent.

As a result, the league is having tremendous difficulty signing many of the top players in college soccer, including Stanford sophomore Jordan Morris, who last month became the first college player in two decades to be capped by the U.S. national team.

Several sources in college soccer and MLS told American Soccer Now that Morris, a product of the Seattle Sounders academy, has turned down a deal to sign with the Sounders as a homegrown player and is returning to school.

“They had talks but it wasn’t enough to get him to leave, and he’s coming back,” said one industry source. “Well, it’s not definite he’s coming back—he may still go to Europe. It’s no secret Jurgen (Klinsmann, the U.S. national team head coach) really likes him and he can easily make some calls to Germany or wherever to get Jordan some trials. So that might happen. But he’s definitely not signing with Seattle.

"The offer just wasn’t there.”

A request for comment from the Sounders went unreturned.

Besides Morris, top candidates for the league’s Generation Adidas program, the mechanism the league uses to get underclassmen into the draft, remain unsigned and many appear likely to remain that way. Meanwhile some of the top seniors in college soccer have either signed with teams in Europe or are looking to do so.

All of this leaves the league’s annual draft without many of the top players in college soccer—in a year in which two expansion teams are joining the ranks. Orlando City and New York City FC hold the top two picks in next month’s so-called SuperDraft, and several industry sources tell American Soccer Now that the clubs are frustrated with MLS’ ability to sign their top choices.

“These teams, they feel like they paid $75 million, $100 million in expansion fees to MLS to get into the league and now the league is keeping them from starting off with the top players for the draft because of (a difference) of $40,000 or $50,000,” said an agent advising some of the top underclassmen. “I’ve spoken to the people at New York City and they’re very frustrated. They want to be able to draft one of the top players and so far they can’t get who they want. It’s like the league isn’t listening to the teams about who should be in the draft or what they think they players are worth.”

Repeated interview requests to New York City FC for a comment were not returned.

Several league sources said MLS had hoped to make an initial announcement of Generation Adidas signings today but that may be postponed because so far the only player it has reached a deal with is Central Florida forward Romario Williams, a junior from Jamaica who scored a modest 18 goals in three seasons. (Williams signing a Generation Adidas deal was first reported by Goal.com.)

Orlando, which holds the top pick in the draft, made no secret that it coveted Georgetown sophomore defender Joshua Yaro, a speedster from Ghana. ASN reported last week he has turned down MLS’ offers and would return to the Hoyas for his junior season. New York City FC picks second and has its eye on Connecticut sophomore forward Cyle Larin, a member of the Canadian senior national team.

Larin is still in talks with MLS but the teams remain stalled and his camp tells ASN he has offers from European clubs. “He may still end up signing but he has a dollar figure in mind and the league isn’t willing to meet it, at least not yet,” said a source familiar with the negotiations. “Cyle has options in Europe. There is a Premier League team that’s interested.”

After Morris, the consensus top American pro prospect in college soccer is Washington sophomore midfielder Cristian Roldan and so far he too has resisted signing with MLS. The top forward available is UCLA freshman Abu Danladi, another Ghanaian speedster who went to prep school in the U.S. “I’d really like to start my career in MLS,” Roldan told American Soccer Now. “But it has to be a fair offer that makes it worth it to leave Washington. We’re still talking but we’re not there yet and if we don’t get there I have no problems going back to school because I’m in a good situation.”

Danladi battled injuries for most of the early part of the season but came on strong down the stretch and was a big reason the Bruins advanced to the NCAA final, scoring a goal and registering five assists in the NCAA Tournament.

“He’s coming back,” said a UCLA source. MLS “made an offer but it wasn’t enough to get him to leave. He trained with Chelsea this summer and he has options over there but after fighting injuries he just wants to get match-fit so we expect he’ll be back next year.”

Unable to sign Danladi, MLS approached his teammate, Larry Ndjock, a junior from Germany who struggled much of the season but scored a pair of impressive goals in the NCAA semifinal against Providence.

“I have actually talked it out with a couple family members and some of the people I trust and decided that I want to stay in school. I think that it would be good for me to finish my degree and have one more year to get sharper and more match fit before I start my pro career,” Ndjock told ASN in an e-mail. “Whether I will go to MLS after or go to Europe, I don't know yet. But I'm glad about my decision.”

Another top underclassmen MLS targeted is North Carolina sophomore Omar Holness, an uber-athletic midfielder from Jamaica.

“We’ve talked about him leaving many times and he has insisted he’s coming back,” said UNC head coach Carlos Somoano. “He’s away on break so I don’t talk to him every day now but I know two things. He hasn’t told me he’s signing and he’s not the type of kid who would sign without telling me first. I haven’t heard anything from MLS about signing him but that doesn’t always mean anything because they don’t always go through the college coaches like they used to. They just contact the players and we’re in the dark. But as far as I know Omar is coming back.”

Last week ASN reported that Saint Louis University senior Robbie Kristo, a three-time All-American forward, had agreed to terms with a club in Italy’s Serie B. He may be joined in Europe next year by fellow senior Leo Stolz, a two-time All-American from UCLA considered one of the top midfielders in college soccer. Stolz was offered a Generation Adidas deal last year as a junior but turned it down to finish school and this year MLS has offered a much lower deal, prompting Stolz to return home and look at clubs in his native Germany.

“They offered him about $130-$140,000 last year and this year the offer about half of that,” said one industry source, whose comments were confirmed by someone close to Stolz.

This all appears to be part of a concerted effort from Major League Soccer to reduce what it pays rookies, particularly underclassmen.

“The league has had a lot of players they’ve signed to (Generation Adidas) deals where they look back on and them and think they’ve overpaid, like Danny Mwanga and Andrew Wenger, who they don’t think have performed up their salaries and they’re trying to avoid doing that again,” said one prominent agent involved in talks with several underclassmen. “But they’re going so low with these offers that the kids are either opting to stay in school, like Yaro, or they’re looking at other options.”

Wenger, the top player in the 2012 draft, has averaged over $200,000 in total compensation his first three years in MLS but scored just 12 career goals. (His career did appear to surge last spring when he was traded to Philadelphia and scored six goals in 28 games.)

Mwanga was the top pick in the 2010 draft; his initial deal averaged about $250,000 for three years. He has scored 15 career MLS goals and last year played in the second division NASL.

“The league is emphasizing the mistakes and letting that guide their offers this year,” said one agent. “But what about all the players they’ve signed to G.A. deals who’ve done on to do great things for their teams and the U.S., like Omar Gonzalez or Brad Guzan? Are they going to risk losing these guys or having them stay in college and stall their development over what is really not a lot of money for them?”

MLS vice president for player relations and competition Lino DiCuollo, the league's point-person for Generation Adidas and college signings, did not respond to a request for comment.

While Roldan wouldn’t comment on the dollar amount he’s been offered or is seeking, several people familiar with the negotiations said MLS’ initial offer was about $80,000 and that they’ve edged closer to about $100,000. That’s a far cry from what Vancouver’s Christian Dean, the top field player picked a year ago, was offered. His total compensation was $160,000.

“These figures are public,” said one agent. “Everyone knows what the guys the previous years got and those are the benchmarks. It’s not like the league is making less money. With the new expansion deals and marketing deals and the TV deal that the league likes to brag about, we know the revenue is there. So why should these players take less?”

Complicating all this is that MLS is negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with its players union and the salary cap is expected to go up.

“The cap, based on what we we’re hearing, is supposed to go up about 25 percent next year," the same agent said. "So shouldn’t the salaries reflect that?”

Besides Kristo, MLS has already lost out on U.S. U-20 national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who was a sophomore at Maryland last fall and signed with Freiburg in Germany despite being eligible to sign a homegrown deal with the Philadelphia Union. (In fairness, that had as much to do with the Union’s glut of goalkeepers as salary.) But Steffen’s Maryland teammate, Mikey Ambrose, a former U-20 national team player considered one of the top left backs in college soccer, is a product of FC Dallas’ academy and could have signed a homegrown deal with them.

Instead, he’s giving up his senior season of college soccer to sign with the Austin Aztex of the third-division USL Pro.

Part of the thinking with MLS’ lowering the offers on Generation Adidas deals is that they want to emphasize signing academy players to homegrown deals. But as the Morris, Steffen, and Abrose situations indicate, that won’t always be easy.

One player who could sign a homegrown deal is Jay Chapman, an All-American midfielder at Michigan State this season as a junior. He had been dropped by Toronto FC’s academy during his senior season of high school but the league recently honored the club’s homegrown claim on Chapman.

“We were a little surprised because they hadn’t had anything to do with him since he was dropped from the academy,” said Niki Budalic, Chapman’s agent. “But they’ve got his homegrown rights and we’re negotiating and Jay is excited about starting his career in his hometown if we can reach a deal.”

With many of the top Generation Adidas targets balking and several of the top seniors unsigned, MLS may consider a second tier of Generation Adidas candidates. Despite having an outstanding season that saw him finish as the consensus best goalkeeper in college soccer, Syracuse junior Alex Bono wasn’t initially on the league’s Generation Adidas list.

“If they can’t sign Larin and Roldan and those guys, they’ll go after another group and Alex should be on that list,” said one source. “Whether they offer enough to get him to leave remains to be seen.

"But they’ve got to sign some players.”

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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