Litke Hits It Out of the Park

I had an ill feeling when I clicked on a link from Yahoo sports that led to a column by the Associated Press’ Jim Litke about BECKHAMGATE ’09.

I expected to read the whole tired idea about how Beckham’s alleged pending departure from Major League Soccer to AC Milan would be a black eye for MLS, that the experiment was an unabashed failure, and that the league is surely now doomed because Mr. Posh doesn’t want to come back.

Instead, Litke presented a well-reasoned, well-written synopsis of the issue, to the point that MLS should know that Beckham is leaving, and negotiate as much out of it as they possible can. It also strikes to the point that MLS needed to bring in a Beckham in the first place, because the US has yet to develop one.

You can read the whole column here.

Here’s a quote from the key part in my estimation.

This is so the right point that it hurts.

MLS will survive post-Beckham. Teams will get stadiums built, start to make money here and there, and in a few years, we’re going to be celebrating the 20th anniversary, watching on like a proud parent whose kid is all grown up.

But is that all? Will the league just survive? The key to going beyond that is just as Litke writes – finding that athletic freak (or five of them) who, for whatever reason, decides to make his living playing soccer and not one of the major sports.

Many years ago, when I covered high school soccer, I saw multiple players who, based on their build, speed, strength, and the fact that they had a good head on their shoulders, would have made good, maybe great, professional soccer players. They exceled in high school, were highly sought after for college, played in good youth systems, and were noticed by some in MLS.

And 100% of the time, they chose another sport. Most often this was basketball, for others it was football. In one case, the player went on to a solid collegiate basketball career and was part of an NCAA Tournament first-round upset victory, but couldn’t latch on with an NBA club after finishing his college career.

Now, would the player in that example been the next big US soccer star? Probably not.

But that’s just it. Right now, we’ll really never know. Litke discusses how MLS Commissioner Don Garber talks of building the league from the bottom up, and not repeating the sins of the NASL. Yet, drafted players into the league are lucky if they aren’t stuck on developmental salaries that most of us normal folk out of college wouldn’t accept for a first job in our field, because you know, we like to buy groceries and stuff. Compare that to the opportunities presented in football, where there are roughly 50 roster spots on 32 franchises (about 1,600 jobs) and some top young talent receive millions in guaranteed money before ever setting foot in a professional game.

Not saying MLS should go that far. The economics currently simply don’t allow it. But there needs to be something out there that shows a current high school junior who stars in say, football, basketball, and soccer, that you can come to MLS and make a good living. Even if they just play here on their first contract, then are sold abroad, it at least provides the league with a further means of reinvestment.

I agree with Litke on this point. The mistake in this saga isn’t letting Beckham go, it’s not investing whatever is gained into making the league a better destination for more skilled, young athletes who could change the game.

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4 thoughts on “Litke Hits It Out of the Park

  1. What’s a good living? Over 100k a year? Quavas Kirk made over 100k a year last year. The problem you’re describing — and I agree with you that it’s a problem — seems like the problem that the GA program was meant to address. If it doesn’t, because the salary caps are too low to pay GA players enough to make the league attractive to the most outstanding young athletes, then we’ve come right back around to the question of where the money comes from when so many teams in the league are in the red. From the monies made through Beckham? You’ll have a hard time convincing Uncle Phil, after the tens of millions he’s put into this league, to chip in to the League as a whole a large fraction of the first really profitable thing he’s been able to do in MLS. So where does the money come from? I don’t know the answer.

  2. The problem is it would be a generation before the lesson sunk in, and you’d have spent an ungodly fortune on the way.

    This is not the way the other leagues really did it. Their revenues went up, and then salaries did. (Well, in between, they still nickeled-and-dimed the kids until either a court forced them to pay up or they went on strike. But either way, it was because the revenues had already grown.)

  3. What I wonder is if, at some point, will the DP experiment be declared a success to the point that the significant salary increases make their way toward much younger players (assuming your DPs are 30-somethings or close to it).

    The talent has been found. Altidore, for example, surely could have played other sports. I think the means are there to find those type of players, it’s just giving them a reason (or many thousands of them) to play in MLS – even if only for a while and doing so on a consistent basis.

    Course, there is then a potential issue for the players union if the DPs are making significant money, and the younger players joining the league are given healthier salaries – where does that leave the middle-ground guys.

    I don’t know the best way to solve it, but it’s something I’d like to see addressed. Whether that can be done in today’s economy is a valid question.

  4. I agree with writered21 that the talent has been found… MLS has raised DeMarcus Beasley, Brad Fredel, Tim Howard, Josy Altidore, Michael Bradley, etc. Now, I know these players aren’t David Beckham caliber (except maybe Brad Fredel–but goalkeepers aren’t prized as much), but measuring success on the players the US produces is not effective. We tend to export our stars, so it’s hard to say we’ve succeeded.

    The challenge is in keeping those stars in the league. Would these players be as good as they are if they had stayed in the league? I don’t think so. But if you want to measure success, that would be one way to do it.

    Why does Josy Altidore have go to a second level club in Spain to get better? That doesn’t make sense to me. MLS could make a statement if international clubs started loaning players to MLS for them to get experience. The problem is that we’re an Atlantic ocean away.

    I’m rambling on… but we’ve got to keep the players in MLS AND we have to be able to make those players better in MLS. We can’t do it right now, but when we do, we can say we’ve “succeeded” or whatever.

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