The battle lines in the intractable standoff over training compensation in the U.S. are fairly distinct. On one side, youth clubs are drawing up all the power they can muster behind the notion that they deserve a small cut (we’re talking 1-5 percent here) of the transfer fees doled out to players they helped develop. The MLS Players Union, meanwhile, asserts that practice is tantamount to robbing money out of the players’ pockets.
The MLSPU is, to my eyes, on the wrong side of this fight. And Don Garber, the commissioner of the players in the league that union represents, may have just undercut the message.
In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated’s Brian Straus, Garber danced through myriad topics: expansion, the validity of the investment in MLS, NYCFC, Miami. In the midst of that, we had this exchange.
On former FC Dallas U-18 star Weston McKennie’s decision to reject a senior contract offer from the MLS club to sign with Schalke 04 and the risk and reward of player development programs
“That one hurt. We had a lot of forces that we were working against on signing that player, and that’s the reality of how difficult it is with a player pool at the youth level that continues to attract the attention of very, very aggressive and well-funded international teams. That one hurt. Not sure there’s much more we could’ve done. We did everything we could financially. The player had been in [FCD’s] system for nine years, so when you look at the investment that goes into supporting that development and then you lose him and get nothing, it makes you scratch your had and wonder, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then two weeks later you sign Paxton [Pomykal] and you feel a little better about it.
“It’s something that we’re wrestling with. We obviously have part of a broad pyramid of soccer and have all sorts of different constituencies that we have to manage and deal with. But you’ve heard me say this number before: it’s north of $50 million a year we’re investing outside of our [MLS] rosters and we’re not necessarily getting that value back in the short term signing those players to our first teams. And you certainly haven’t seen a lot of that in the sale on of players. I’m feeling a lot of ownership pressure to ensure that investment will start paying off.”
I’m going to pull one section of his answer and highlight it. You know. For emphasis.
“The player had been in [FCD’s] system for nine years, so when you look at the investment that goes into supporting that development and then you lose him and get nothing, it makes you scratch your had and wonder, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then two weeks later you sign Paxton [Pomykal] and you feel a little better about it.”
Life. Is. Strange.
As an entity, MLS HQ has backed off MLSPU’s more fiery rhetoric, preferring instead to couch all statements in terms of brokering a deal of some sort. It’s never been clear what that meant, exactly. No deal or terms of a deal between clubs like Crossfire (DeAndre Yedlin), Dallas Texans (Clint Dempsey) and Weston FC (Alejandro Bedoya) have ever been made public.
This is an example of how Garber’s always approached the topic in the past. This is from his State of the League address to reporters in December 2015.
“We are a member of U.S. Soccer, CONCACAF and FIFA, but we are also governed by U.S. law, and there are aspects of U.S. law as it relates to how we act in this space,” Garber said. “The best that I can say is, MLS will be a major beneficiary of solidarity payments going forward because of the number of academy players that we have, and yet we want to be very mindful and very careful about how we go forward here. I’m confident that Sunil [Gulati, U.S. Soccer president] and [MLS president and deputy commissioner] Mark Abbott and the respective attorneys will find a way to have an agreement and to move forward successfully.”
When we look back at Garber’s legacy, I think in most cases he’ll be viewed as shrewd operator who’s been zealous about expansion and overly cautious when it comes to picking his battles. When he openly sparred with Jurgen Klinsmann about the latter’s comments over MLS after Dempsey and Bradley moved back to the league, it was very much out of character in light of his public persona. He is the personal embodiment of a button-down shirt.
But I think with each passing player who jumps an MLS academy for Europe, Garber grows increasingly bolder with his rhetoric. And this is about as brash an example that Garber isn’t aligned with MLSPU’s stance we’ve yet had.
I don’t think Garber actually meant to tie the two things together. It reads like a general lament, like a man who just watched someone pinch the Rolls Royce out of his garage and now wants to burn the house down in a brief, passing storm of spite. I don’t think Garber had training compensation anywhere near the front of his mind when he spoke on McKennie. But the truth has a funny way of worming its way out of the shadows all the same.
There are three practical fixes, as I see it, to the problem Garber elucidates here.
— Make MLS so good at the top that young academy players cannot be enticed to leave by other leagues
— Enact a national system of training compensation to help subsidize the cost of training that player and lessen the blow of their exodus
— Burn the entire system down, eliminate academies entirely and turn MLS into a cricket league
The first bullet is not on the horizon, and whether MLS ever gets to a place where it’s held in equal (let alone higher) esteem than Europe’s top dogs is worth debating. The third bullet might be on the table for your friendly neighborhood anarchist, but why don’t we assume that’s off the table in the near term.
Which leaves No. 2. Whether Garber realized it or not (maybe he did!), he wants his own MLS academies to be compensated like every other academy in the world for the players they’ve produced. And you can’t do that without compensating every other club for the same practices.
So whether this was a quiet lament over the system’s inadequacies or sly way of pointing out to Bob Foose and the MLSPU that the league is now beginning to openly side with the clubs, Garber sent the same message. Whether it happens or not, training compensation is the way forward.