Keith Hickey: Mattocks complaints illustrate lack of player power in MLS

Darren Mattocks' undesirable situation in Vancouver highlights the lack of control and appropriate compensation given to MLS players.
Darren Mattocks has a point.

Last week, the Vancouver Whitecaps striker went on the Jamaican TV show Football GPS to vent his spleen about his club situation. He was upset with coach Martin Rennie about disagreements that led to his playing time being cut. He was upset with the Whitecaps leadership for refusing to sell him.

Ticking off his various honors on his fingers, he revealed interest from clubs and his frustration at Vancouver's intention to keep him. "How many accolades as a young player, as a rookie, for carrying my team on my back and making the playoffs?" he said. "Anyways, the second season now, they are talking on the streets say, teams from England interested in my talent, you understand?

"Vancouver don't want Darren to leave as yet, they want to sell me [for] as much money as possible. So obviously I have to pursue my dreams, to play in the best league in the world [EPL], as every young player. So because of that I tell the coach, 'Listen, do what's best for me, do what's best for the club. Because if you sell me, the club have to get money. And I get to fulfill my dreams. It's a win-win situation.'

"The coach says he's not ready to sell Darren. So I say, 'Why not?'" Mattocks continued. "They want to invest in me more. I said, 'You already invested in Darren by drafting me, and now you have to reap the benefits by selling me.' They don't want that. So from that, me and them couldn't agree. At the end of the day, I have to look out for what's best for me."

According to Players Union documents, Darren Mattocks was paid a base salary of $120,000 and guaranteed compensation of $212,000 from Major League Soccer in 2013. It's nice money, sure, but not really the salary from which to build a retirement nest egg.

Soccer players have a narrow window of opportunity - 10 or 15 years, if they're good and lucky and concussions or knee problems or poor decisions don't derail them - in which to make money from the profession they've spent the previous part of their life achieving. Ten or 15 years to make the money that will buy their houses, put their kids through college and take care of them in their old age.

MLS players, most of whom make "normal person" salaries but with a fraction of the years available to most professions compensated commensurately, are especially put upon. Get it right, work your butt off and get your break, you could end up like Chris Wondolowski. Or you could get into a bad situation, become resentful and end up like Danny Szetela. For many, you play out your string and angle for a job in the coaching ranks or the media or hope your decade-old marketing degree with zero relevant experience can find you a job that covers your mortgage payments.

"I'm a footballer," Mattocks said. "I'm only 23, but I have a lot of talent in front of me, a lot of years to go. So I have to look at that as well. When I say me and Vancouver coach in a bit of feud, you have to remember, by the time I retire from football – which is not for now – I have to make sure my career is set in every way, shape and form.

"If I can be successful in my first season and in my second season you try to jeopardize my career, I'm not naïve and I'm not going to stay. Every other team in MLS wants me. There was a team in MLS – I'm not going to name the team – offered $1.2 million to buy me from Vancouver and Vancouver turned me down."

Darren Mattocks bought into the American soccer system. He played two exceptional seasons at the University of Akron, helping launch the career of the odds-on favorite for MLS Coach of the Year, Caleb Porter, while seeing not a dime in return. As a Generation Adidas player, his contract ties him to the league for an extended time. In his case, he's two years into what could be a five-year deal, with one guaranteed year remaining and two league options after that. Under league rules, Vancouver can offer him a contract at his existing salary and retain his rights when that contract expires.

Once that contract is up, Mattocks is free to go find another team that adequately appreciates and compensates his talent.

Except he's not. Not really. Major League Soccer still has a monopoly on access to the first division of American soccer. If you won't sign with MLS and, in many cases, go to the club MLS tells you owns your rights, you don't get to play first division soccer. And, unlike the other major North American sports where league minimum salaries are north of $400,000, some MLS players make as little as $35,125 a year.

Mattocks signed a contract with Major League Soccer. Until that contract is up, he's an MLS player, making the salary he agreed to, under the terms he agreed to in December 2011. If Vancouver wants to use him as a staggeringly overpriced bench koozie until Dec. 31, 2016, tying him to the club for some of his best-earning years, Vancouver can do that.

Apart from the high-profile designated players - the MLS one-percenters - MLS players have little say over their situations. They can be traded across the country for other players or draft picks or, most insultingly, allocation money. They can have their right to earn a living held hostage by a team for which they have no interest in playing. Any argument that this is the price of being a professional athlete falls flat when the unglamorous salaries of those involved are considered.

Ricardo Clark may have slunk back to Houston with his tail between his legs, but his derisory comment a few years ago - that MLS stands for "must leave soonest" - still rings true.

If he waits out his contract with Vancouver, Mattocks could try his luck at achieving his dream in England, providing he qualifies for a skilled worker visa (or has a grandmother born in Shropshire). Considering Jamaica is ranked 82nd on the planet, it's not cut-and-dried, even if he establishes himself as a starter. Dropping down to the NASL or going to the Jamaican National Premier League would be a waste of his considerable talents and unlikely to earn him financial security.

Major League Soccer's single-entity system has served it well, spreading losses and keeping costs down when the league's very survival was in jeopardy. There was a time not that long ago when the league was hemorrhaging money at every turn, playing to empty NFL stadiums and begging for someone, anyone to show games on national television. Without single-entity and the foresight of a handful of determined owners, there might be no professional first division in the United States today, and most certainly not one as strong or as successful as MLS is today.

But that time has passed. MLS is inking national broadcast deals creeping toward $30 million per annum and adding a New York City franchise with a $100 million expansion fee. It can no longer reasonably claim poverty.

When soccer-specific stadiums and multi-million dollar shirt sponsors are the norm rather than the exception, paying a professional athlete poorly and giving him little control over his career threatens to cross the line from prudent to avaricious.

Single-entity isn't going anywhere - nor should it, there are still problems better faced by the league as a whole - but the controls over player compensation and movement need to be relaxed. The time has come for the first word in "Major League Soccer" to stop seeming so overly optimistic.

The MLS rights system (uncannily similar to the hated "reserve clause" that Major League Baseball players struggled for a century to obliterate) denies free agency, penalizing players who came up through the American system, removing from them the right to determine their worth on the open market without moving abroad.

MLS free agency wouldn't need to resemble the free-for-all common to many countries around the world. The salary cap, even if it was to be increased generously (and it should be, for the sake of the players and the quality of the competition), forces teams to spend shrewdly. The strength of the single-entity system could be used to protect the league's parity with mechanisms similar to those found in other American sports leagues, forcing teams that sign a free agent to compensate the player's former club in draft picks or allocation money, and enforcing age or service minimum requirements for free agency.

The current system hurts domestic players and forces many mid-level players - the spine of any domestic league - overseas for the prime of their careers. When the collective bargaining agreement expires next December, it's time for MLS to open the checkbook and loosen its grip - in other words, to start acting like a major league.

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