Paul Caligiuri would seem to be just the sort of homebred player Major League Soccer officials say they need. A defender for the U.S. in two World Cups, he scored the most important goal in American soccer history, a 25-yard blast that defeated Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 and sent the U.S. to the Cup in 1990. But for the first 13 games of this season, MLS and its byzantine system had consigned Caligiuri to the Los Angeles Galaxy's inactive roster. His time in limbo ended on Monday when the Galaxy cleared room under its $1.3 million salary cap by trading defender Mark Semioli to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. After 19 months, one lawsuit and untold hours of frustration, Caligiuri at last would be able to play in his native Southern California.
In December 1995, while competing for FC St. Pauli in Germany, Caligiuri received a guaranteed three-year, $330,000 deal from MLS, with the understanding that he would play for the Galaxy. A month later the league, which employs a so-called single-entity system, under which MLS signs all players and assigns them to teams, sent Caligiuri a letter saying that his agent, Cory Clemetson, had voided the contract, which Clemetson denied. MLS then tendered Caligiuri a three-year deal (only one year was guaranteed) at a base salary of $80,000. Caligiuri took it and accepted an assignment to the Columbus Crew, but he also sued the league. In March an arbitrator in Los Angeles ruled in favor of Caligiuri and said the terms of the first deal should apply.
Caligiuri's wages put L.A. over the cap, and the team placed him on its inactive list. To Clemetson, Caligiuri was a victim of the league's caprice. "The cap is a device MLS uses to suit its convenience," he said.
While MLS commissioner Doug Logan denied Clemetson's allegations, the league's handling of Caligiuri underlined flaws in the system, which in February prompted 10 players to tile a class-action suit against MLS, claiming that the league's restraints on players violated antitrust laws. Instead of putting its best product on the field, MLS allowed a star to sit while one of the league's top-drawing teams foundered in last place. As Caligiuri put it, "I feel that I've been victimized. But I haven't done anything wrong."