Monday MLS Breakdown: Graham Zusi's new contract constitutes smart business for club, player

Kansas City handed its emerging U.S. midfielder a revamped deal at the start of the 2012 season. Its decision to amend the agreement again contradicts usual MLS practices.
The restrictive nature of the salary budget rewards teams for identifying potential key domestic players before the expiration of their rookie deals and locking them up for the long term at reasonable, below-market rates. It is the easiest way to elicit disproportionate production from good players and preserve ample room for more expensive signings elsewhere.

Sporting Kansas City followed the template perfectly last year when it signed C.J. Sapong (though he has not necessarily repaid that faith yet) and Graham Zusi prior to the start of last season. Zusi entered last season in the final year of his rookie deal. The agreement between club and player in February 2012 offered him a pay increase ($140,000 base/$173,812.50 guaranteed for 2013, according to MLS Players Union documents released in May) in exchange for tacking more years onto his deal.

Zusi conceded control of his future to MLS and Sporting once he consummated the new deal, but he prompted Sporting to reassess his contractual status with his excellent performances last season and his increased stature on the domestic and international stages heading into 2013.

Instead of squeezing every last drop of value out of Zusi's current deal, Sporting opted to follow the course charted by San Jose – a club willing to present Chris Wondolowski with a revised pact in each of the past three offseasons to keep him satisfied with his lot – and supplement the perfectly acceptable status quo.

“For us, philosophically, it was pretty simple,” Sporting manager Peter Vermes said during a conference call on Friday. “He's a big player in our team. He's for sure one of the main guys in the team. He's developed into not only a very good player for Sporting, but obviously one for our national team. We feel we want to make sure we try to retain the players that have come up within our team and will continue to give us the performance and and the product we want on the field. He's definitely that guy. He's a franchise player.”

Zusi's new deal increases his wages significantly – Vermes told the Kansas City Star his club dipped into a “retention fund” to keep Zusi from counting as a Designated Player – without fundamentally altering the balance of the relationship. Both parties understood they were tied for the long haul already. The new deal merely enshrines that commitment and rewards Zusi for his displays over the past year.

It is not, as Vermes made clear during the conference call, a move to prevent European teams from swooping for Zusi at the end of next summer's World Cup. Several contingencies – including Zusi's place in the squad and on the field, for example – must come to pass before that idea turns into reality. But even if Zusi retains his current prominence within the setup and thrives in Brazil, he would not have entered 2014 (or 2015, for that matter) with a contract poised to expire at the end of the year.

By pushing the agreement out further at this stage, Sporting reaffirms its dominion over Zusi's future. Any team in search of his services cannot wait for a free transfer or a knockdown price. That scenario isn't in play for several years now. It wasn't in play when the MLS MVP finalist from a year ago trained with West Ham United during the close season, either.

Although Zusi conceded considerable flexibility on this front with his first extension last season (worth noting: Matt Besler stayed with Sporting despite allowing his contract to expire at the end of last season), he is not necessarily condemned to stay forever. Zusi told the Star last week he wants consistent competition more than anything else and he believes Kansas City is the best spot to find it right now. If an opportunity arises at some point to alter that line of thinking and the pursuing club tables a multi-million dollar offer worth considering, then Sporting – or any other MLS club, for that matter, with the league holding all contracts centrally – is not likely to dismiss it out of hand.

“He knows that we're not going to hold his feet to the fire if someone comes along and makes a very good offer for him and that he's maybe interested,” Vermes said. “In the meantime, he's still making more money than he was yesterday. For him, he makes out. It's a smart move. It's a very smart move.”

The statement applies on all counts here. Sporting keeps Zusi happy by sliding his compensation in line with other players of his caliber without threatening its transfer position. Zusi receives more money as he enters the prime of his career and remains in a comfortable professional situation. Reaching a second extension in as many years may not adhere to the usual way of doing business in MLS, but this intelligent deviation from the norm should benefit all parties – and, perhaps, the league itself – over the next few years.

Five Points – Week 18

1. Real Salt Lake extends its winning streak to four matches...with a victory in Canada?: Yordany Alvarez ended RSL's 10-match winless streak in Canada (all competitions) with his goal shortly before halftime. Alvarez's rasping drive marked a pair of firsts – his initial MLS goal and RSL's maiden breakthrough in six MLS games at BMO Field – en route to the 1-0 victory. RSL reaped the benefits of an unexpected tactical switch (Jason Kreis opted for a 4-3-3 setup instead of the usual 4-4-2 with the diamond in midfield) and survived a few scares along the way to open up a three-point lead at the top of the Western Conference.

2. FC Dallas receives its due with late Pérez equalizer: The visitors found themselves on the unfortunate end of a pair of decisions during the second half of the 2-2 draw at Philadelphia on Saturday: (1) the second yellow card issued to Je-Vaughn Watson for simulation after 68 minutes and (2) the goal-line clearance on Blas Pérez's apparent equalizer in the second minute of second-half stoppage time. Replays showed both verdicts – and the chalked off leveller, in particular – proved particularly harsh on the visitors.

Perez and FCD managed to overcome those adverse judgments in the seventh minute of extra time to claim a late point. The well-traveled striker poked home after Zac MacMath failed to cope with a free kick to ensure Schellas Hyndman's side departed with a deserved point.

(Note: MacMath claimed he deserved a foul call after London Woodberry backed into him on the service. Those entreaties might have carried more weight if the Union goalkeeper had charged off his line forcefully and tried to punch clear instead of rising timidly in an attempt to make a difficult catch.)

3. Will Ben Olsen receive a ban after his post-match tirade?: MLS usually copes with post-game displeasure with fines, but Olsen's protracted rant against referee Matthew Foerster may warrant sterner action from the league given the content of the dialogue. Olsen felt compelled to back his players after a pair of decisions – a penalty award after Bill Hamid hauled down Matt Watson (he made contact with the ball first before clearing him out) and a non-call after a deflected cross in stoppage time hit Brad Rusin's left arm – condemned his side to a 1-0 defeat to Vancouver on Saturday night.

“Nobody wants to hear the coach in last place complain about the referees,” Olsen said, according to a transcription of a video shot by CSN Washington. “Nobody wants to hear that. But I have a group of men in there that have fought their tails off today. They're gutted because I asked them to give me everything this week. I pushed guys to the limit with three games and the Open Cup and they gave it to me today. They gave me everything they had. And the joker in the middle did not do a good job. He failed those guys. He failed the guys in the locker room, my guys that put their heart out there. That's it. That's for me. … Bill bails us out. And then he doesn't make the handball call in the 93rd minute. I don't get it. They're easy calls. I'm not asking him to be a super referee. I'm not. I'm asking him to make the right call. If Bill Hamid touches the ball and his follow-through tends to trip the guy, it's not a PK. If the ball hits a guy's hand in the box right in front of the referee, it's a PK. What else you got? …. (Q: Did you get any kind of explanation?) Explanation? You know, explanation? They don't have to explain. I do, to my owners, why I lost another game. Good? Anything else?”

Previous precedent offers some leeway for dissent in the wake of difficult decisions. Whether the leniency applies in this case – Olsen received an undisclosed fine for criticizing match officials last August, a factor that probably will not help him here – remains an open question.
4. Goonies supply an ending worthy of a sold-out Stanford Stadium: San Jose conjured up the magic of last year to score twice in second-half stoppage time and send Los Angeles crashing to a 4-3 defeat in Palo Alto, Calif. Galaxy boss Bruce Arena lambasted his players for the way they closed out the match and his words carried the weight of inevitable truth. Credit the 10-man Earthquakes (reduced for the latter stages due to a wayward, studs-up challenge from Victor Bernárdez at midfield to procure his second yellow card) for pushing and pushing, but the Galaxy also failed to deal with a long throw-in on Shea Salinas' equalizer and watched Alan Gordon float to the back post unmarked for the winner. The late capitulation left the Galaxy stunned and permitted the 50,000 or so patrons leave with vivid memories from this compelling affair.

5. Fabián Espíndola breaks his duck and prolongs Houston's skid: The former RSL man notched his first league goal since April 20 with a typical piece of canny work along the Dynamo defensive line. Espíndola first checked toward the ball to draw Jermaine Taylor out of position and then peeled around him into the space to latch onto Eric Alexander's through ball from the right side. The occasionally wasteful forward made no mistake this time with a composed finished into the far side of the net to place the Red Bulls on their way to a 2-0 victory over the Dynamo (now winless in its past seven outings).