Sounders left back Joevin Jones has left the team without authorization to play for Trinidad and Tobago in upcoming World Cup qualifiers, meaning he'll miss two MLS games against Vancouver and Portland.
One of the glaring differences between professional soccer and other sports played in this country smacked the Sounders in the face Tuesday when star left back Joevin Jones unexpectedly bolted from the team.
Jones, 25, who already has a deal to leave the Sounders in January to play in Germany, this week flew back to his native Trinidad and Tobago without authorization to play in a “friendly’’ match for his national team Thursday against Jamaica. That means Jones will miss at least two key Western Conference rivalry clashes, starting Wednesday at Vancouver and back home Sunday against Portland.
Though FIFA rules force Major League Soccer teams to release players during specified competition windows, Jones took off a week before that period for upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama. And though his actions might have tarnished his career irreparably if he were playing for a Major League Baseball or NFL team, putting the squeeze on the Sounders, as he appears to be doing, isn’t unheard of in international soccer.
“Joevin has left the team for personal reasons, and he’ll be joining the national team down in Trinidad,’’ Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said Tuesday without commenting further.
Jones could not be reached for comment Tuesday at his parents’ house in Trinidad, where he is staying. But his unauthorized departure could be a thinly disguised attempt to get the Sounders to release him from his MLS contract so he can play in Germany months ahead of schedule for bigger money. His salary this season with the Sounders is $96,000.
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When pressed by reporters later in the day, coach Brian Schmetzer said, “Joevin is away for personal reasons that I can’t discuss. We hope he can get those resolved, that he can come back to the team and continues to perform like he does.’’
Schmetzer added, “What’s important for us is that the team doesn’t have any distractions. Whatever the situation with Joevin is, it will be handled and it won’t become a distraction.’’
Multiple sources told The Times on Tuesday that Jones flew to Trinidad on Monday and later informed Schmetzer about it via text message. Schmetzer addressed the rest of the team on the field before Tuesday’s practice in Tukwila, at which time players were informed of Jones’ unexpected departure.
If the Sounders were to release Jones before the German transfer-window deadline of Sept. 1, he could start playing for second-division team SV Darmstadt right away. But it’s highly unlikely the Sounders would do that, given Jones is considered one of the best left backs in MLS and gives them a better shot to repeat as champions than if he leaves.
For now, Nouhou Tolo — the Cameroonian rookie who has highly impressed the team with his speedy, physical play — takes over the position. But the Sounders will likely bank on Jones returning at some point rather than forfeiting his remaining salary and being forced to sit out from soccer entirely until the January transfer window opens.
For that reason, they have opted not to block Jones from playing in Thursday’s friendly competition and risk further inflaming the situation.
Rejoining the Sounders might not be easy for Jones, considering some teammates might be resentful that he abandoned them on the eve of two big games. But soccer players also understand the financial dynamics of their sport and that such power plays in the name of greater money or playing circumstances do happen.
Take Dynamo Kiev star midfielder Derlis Gonzalez, who openly courted the Sounders via foreign media outlets in recent months and all but begged his current team to sell him here. But Gonzalez was just the latest in a long line of players that try to force transfers either through media interviews or walkouts.
In 2006, William Gallas famously became so unhappy with English side Chelsea that he reportedly threatened to score an own goal if picked to keep playing for them. He was quickly traded.
By those standards, Jones skipping MLS Rivalry Week seems rather tame. Especially if he comes back and helps lead the Sounders to another title.
For now, the Sounders, 11-7-7 and playing a second game in four days against the Whitecaps on Wednesday, will hope Nouhou continues to excel.
“Nouhou has been there and done that, so again we’re way deeper than just 11 guys,’’ Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said after Tuesday’s training session. “So no issues there at all. I’m excited for him. He’s come in as a starter a couple of times, was relegated to the bench, and he’s bought his time and I think had the right mentality.’’
Not just the mentality, but far more talent than the team expected to see from Nouhou this soon. Meaning, if Jones does indeed have designs on returning and playing a key role in the Sounders’ stretch run, he’d best not stay away too long.