Market forces at workPosted: Tuesday June 25, 2002 5:55 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 25, 2002 1:19 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
SEOUL -- Leaner budgets have restricted opportunities for Americans to move abroad, but buying sprees are always a World Cup byproduct.
The world's biggest sporting event can be rudely humbling or a springboard to success.
Based on their exploits in South Korea, several MLS players are expected to attract serious offers from foreign clubs pending performance in Asia.
The interest is there. Whether offers will -- and what the prices might be -- hinges on the next few weeks.
And again MLS officials -- having decided to table any transfers until after the tournament -- must ponder whether to sell or buy.
"Our philosophy is the same as it's always been," says Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis, one of several MLS executives in South Korea. "We're going to keep our best players if we can, but we're only interested in keeping players who clearly want to be here."
Most attractive is the fab four: ex-South Carolina teammates Josh Wolff and Clint Mathis, both 25, and the 20-year-old wonderboys Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.
All have tested the waters through training stints or have already drawn offers. And no set formula can be applied, for each equation presents its own set of factors and variables.
The MLS contracts of Wolff, Beasley and Mathis were to expire next season. Wolff signed a long-term extension in early June. Bayer Leverkusen has myriad options on Donovan, and the initial term of its loan to MLS expires at the end of the U.S. league's season. (A league press release in April 2001 said that Beasley had signed through 2005, though it was unclear for how long the contract was guaranteed to keep him in MLS.)
All four players are featured prominently in the league's "Strike Force" marketing campaign. (The other is Crew forward Brian McBride, who has already been to England and back on loan.)
"What everyone needs to figure out," says agent Richard Motzkin, who represents Donovan and whose partner Dan Segal represents Beasley and Wolff, "are which players MLS should invest in and make the effort to keep home.
"It also has to determine which players really want to go overseas and accommodate them if at all possible."
THE BAYERN DEAL. Mathis said in early May he'd like to have a deal wrapped up before the World Cup. Apparently, Bayern Munich took him seriously, for it made an offer.
Gazidis denied the deal was a straightforward transfer fee of $1 million but did confirm it had been rejected.
"It was a multilayered deal, the details of which I'm not willing to discuss," said Gazidis. "The discussions with Bayern have already proven to be somewhat of a distraction, and what we've told Clint and all the players is their focus should be on playing. We'll deal with the offers later."
On the field, Mathis' swashbuckling swoops into the attacking third and two-footed finishing are enticing. Yet German clubs in general, and Bayern in particular, are not so tolerant of flamboyant indulgences such as the downstairs disco Mathis built in his home.
The club unceremoniously dumped free-spirited Mario Basler several years ago for living the high life a little too much. And Mathis has the reputation of training only as hard as he has to, not as hard as he can.
"At higher levels, at big-time clubs, there's a huge demand on work and fitness over a sustained period of time," says U.S. assistant coach Dave Sarachan. "And that's something not only Clint won't be used to, but any of the players that go from a club environment like MLS -- and that's not a knock on MLS; it's just the way the league is - to a very big club that plays 70 games a year and is basically a year-round [operation]."
Then again, if he duplicates the two-goal game he had against Germany in March against a World Cup foe in June, a bidding war could ensue. He could easily triple his reported MLS salary of $200,000.
GERMAN LESSONS. One of the most vivid lessons Frankie Hejduk learned when he went to Bayer Leverkusen was that every player is expected to train hard. Superstars such as striker Ulf Kirsten, who reigned as the Bundesliga's top active scorer until he retired last month, aren't exempt.
"They work their asses off every day," says Hejduk, who parlayed a good run of games in the Gold Cup and subsequent warm-up matches into a spot on the World Cup roster.
"You'd think if anybody could coast, it would be Kirsten, but he's a machine. He trains as hard as anybody, and in Germany that's what they demand of everybody."
Hejduk and Donovan learned first-hand that trying to crack a roster already studded with diamonds can stunt a player's growth.
"It's an issue of playing or not playing," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "If it's an issue of not playing at Real Madrid, I'm not sure that's a great advantage. Then you have a case like Frankie Hejduk, who actually has gotten better.
"Being in a soccer environment has helped him, and he probably had a pretty good attitude about it, which has helped as well."
Donovan fled Leverkusen last year to flourish in MLS on loan, but the club will call him back, perhaps in July, perhaps later. And what if another club comes up with an offer Leverkusen and Donovan are willing to accept?
"My only problem with Bayer was not getting a shot with the first team," says Donovan. "The club is great, they treated me great, but it wouldn't make much sense to go back just to sit on the bench."
Beasley prompted an offer from Spanish club Tenerife after training with the club two years ago. MLS turned down the offer, but teams have been following Beasley. Segal says competitions like the 2000 Olympic Games invariably trigger a flurry of inquiries.
"It convinced him he could go over there and succeed," says Segal of Beasley's trip to the Canary Islands. "I don't think he doubted it before, but going over confirmed it for him.
"If a team is really following a player, they will check in with you on a fairly regular basis."
Scouts from Holland and Germany observed him and his mates during the warm-up matches in May.
"What people on the outside see about DaMarcus is a quick, fast kid, but what those on the inside have seen is a guy with a real soccer brain," says Sarachan.
"He has really good instincts, he's a good decision-maker, he's alert and has become more of a sound-thinking soccer player. With the national team we've encouraged him to make aggressive mistakes."
Donovan has marveled at Beasley's progress in 2002.
"It's amazing, when you think about it," says Donovan. "Two or three months ago no one was sure if he would make the team, and now it looks like he may start [in the World Cup].
"He's more willing to try things. He doesn't care. I think at times last year both of us were tentative, but now we realize we have to do whatever we can to help the team win."
SOCCER IN RECESSION. Wolff trained with Blackburn last year and also had a brief visit with AC Milan earlier in his career, but extensive negotiations with MLS in the past month indicate he may stay at home. Segal says interest in Wolff increased sharply after he scored the first goal and set up the second in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Mexico in late February of last year, then leveled out as he recovered from injuries last summer.
Gazidis is apparently unwilling to sell a player abroad before the World Cup but is amenable to tying one down if he's already in MLS.
Market forces may be working against American players looking to go overseas. Television-rights fees, which had been skyrocketing for the past decade, have flattened out or plummeted. In most countries, no longer are clubs paying top-tier prices for second-tier players.
"I've felt for the last year or two what was happening in the market was unsustainable and that's proven to have been the case," says Gazidis. "The prices may continue to go up for the very best players, but not for those players in the second tier, which most of our players are."
Gazidis downplays MLS resorting to player transfers as a significant revenue source, but the potential is there. Hejduk left near the end of his contract for a token payment, as did Joe-Max Moore.
MLS passed up a chance to sell Adin Brown to PSV Eindhoven for as much as $1 million two years ago, and his value has nose-dived since.
Along with earning more money, the other bottom line for players is playing time at the highest level possible. Commit a few flubs at the World Cup, though, and the bottom could fall out.
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.