Seth Vertelney: For young American players, signing with MLS isn't always the best option

University of North Carolina forward Billy Schuler's decision to go to the Swedish second division instead of MLS contained some interesting lessons.
Heading into last week's MLS SuperDraft, the New England Revolution were in the unenviable position of holding the third selection in a draft with two consensus top players.

After Montreal took Andrew Wenger first and Vancouver selected Darren Mattocks second, the forward-desperate Revolution selected midfielder Kelyn Rowe out of UCLA – a highly regarded prospect, but a player who didn't fill one of the team's biggest needs.

It could have been different though.

Former University of North Carolina forward Billy Schuler would have been an ideal choice to supplement New England's forward shortcomings, as he was ranked by most as a surefire top five pick.

Unfortunately for the Revs, instead of sitting in the audience in Kansas City waiting to hear his name called, Schuler was in Stockholm, getting ready for the season with Swedish second-division club Hammarby, after signing a contract just prior to the draft.

Though the league does manage to snap up most of the young talent available for its draft, there are some players who get away, and Schuler's situation is instructive towards understanding some of the pitfalls that signing with MLS entails.

Schuler was offered a Generation adidas deal by MLS but turned it down, deciding his career ambitions would be better served abroad.
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The Generation adidas program is designed to fast-track players into the professional game either straight from high school or college. In doing so, it offers players relatively large contracts that do not count against a team's salary cap, providing incentive both for the player to sign with MLS and for teams to draft them.

“I was definitely surprised (about Schuler signing with Hammarby), only because he was going to get Generation adidas and he was going to get top three which is normally a pretty good gig for anybody because of the contract that comes along with it,” Jide Ogunbiyi told in an interview.

Ogunbiyi was selected by the New York Red Bulls out of Santa Clara University with the 18th overall pick in the 2009 SuperDraft, but opted to sign with Danish second-division club Viborg instead. He has written several articles for about his decision to turn down MLS and his life in Scandinavia.

A Generation adidas contract is usually a decent financial proposition for players entering the league. Of last year's rookie GA class, Michael Tetteh of Seattle had the lowest salary, with nearly $78,000 guaranteed, while Darlington Nagbe of Portland had the highest, with over $200,000 guaranteed.

(Two facts to bear in mind: The average MLS salary in 2011 was $154,000, and salary numbers will rise over the course of these contracts.)

Based on his projected top-five status, Schuler was likely looking at a first-year salary in the neighborhood of $150,000 to $200,000.

“I wouldn't think it would be that much in the second division in Sweden,” Ogunbiyi said of that estimated figure.

So what caused Schuler – along with other recent notables like Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies among others – to opt against entering the draft and instead decide to spend their formative years abroad?

To be sure, the money in Europe is often better than MLS, but that's not always the case. There are other factors that might push a burgeoning young player eastward across the Atlantic.

The ability for a player to pick their club, as opposed to being assigned to a team is a major advantage that heading abroad offers. Undoubtedly, having an American and a fellow UNC alum in Gregg Berhalter as the head coach was an attraction for Schuler at Hammarby.

“In MLS, you don't know who's going to draft you or what the situation is going to be like when you get there,” Ogunbiyi said.

One of the biggest draws to playing in Europe is contract flexibility. MLS currently offers Generation adidas players a deal between five and six years, including club options, a length which can stifle the ambitions of a promising young player.

“The Generation adidas deal I was offered is a five-year contract. It’s a two year guaranteed contract with three option years that the club holds,” Schuler said in a recent interview with the Independent Weekly, a newspaper out of Durham, N.C.

“So, if there is European interest or something, the club would have to let you go, which is usually not very easy. I’m going to turn 22 in a few months, and that would kind of hold me down in MLS until I’m 26. For me, that’s a long time.”

Ogunbiyi concurred with Schuler's sentiment, saying, “I think they (MLS) are scaring players away. I know it scared me away because of the idea that it (the contract) was so long and you see a lot of players get stuck and it can hurt your career if you get stuck somewhere you don't want to be.”

Any MLS player can move abroad before his contract is up, but such a move requires a transfer fee that's deemed acceptable by the league. While elite players may be able to attract an acceptable bid, many players with ambitions of moving abroad could be hamstrung by their contracts.

While MLS contracts sometimes lock players into a situation they don't want to be in, those same deals can also have the opposite effect. According to the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement, only players who are at least 24-years-old and have three years of MLS service are entitled to guaranteed contracts. Oftentimes, European contracts offer much more definitive financial groundwork.

In a perfect world. MLS would be able to secure the future of any promising talent long before any decision like Schuler's needs to be made. As the Academy system increases in prominence, there is an inverse relationship with the significance of the SuperDraft.

However, it remains to be see when or if the Academy system will ever render the draft completely unnecessary and until that point is reached, the league will have to brace itself to miss out on some top talent developed within the United States.

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