A letter from England’s Tottenham Hotspur to a Mountlake Terrace youth club for which former Sounder DeAndre Yedlin once played is adding fuel to an ongoing dispute about solidarity fees, a touchy subject within MLS and U.S. Soccer.
The logo at the top corner of the letter caught Sean Hansen’s eye. As president of the board for Mountlake Terrace’s Northwest Nationals youth soccer club, Hansen has watched proudly as former players turned pro.
But a letter from an England Premier League club was new.
Tottenham Hotspur was reaching out in regard to the transfer of defender DeAndre Yedlin from the Sounders and Major League Soccer. Yedlin had played for the Northwest Nationals when he was a scrawny teenager. And, according to FIFA Regulations outlined in the letter, the club was due a “Solidarity Contribution” for its part in Yedlin’s growth as a player.
Related: DeAndre Yedlin heads to Tottenham
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These payments are meant to cultivate development, like rewarding farmers for planting the seeds even if they don’t harvest them themselves. The implications of Tottenham’s letter, and the dispute that followed it, could rock the landscape of youth soccer in this country.
“When I first got it, it was like, ‘Really? Is this an offer from a Kenyan banker or something?’” Hansen said.
The validity of solidarity fees has long been a touchy subject within MLS and U.S. Soccer, a taboo issue dismissed with allusions to child-labor laws, past precedent and the court case behind MLS’ current structure. For years, instead of going to the youth teams, these payments have been tied into transfer payments directly to the league.
Across Lake Washington, another of Yedlin’s former youth clubs was about to break the silence.
Crossfire Premier, in a letter dated this past Monday and as first reported by Sports Illustrated and Vice, has reached out to FIFA with a “legal grievance” against the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS seeking its portion of the Yedlin transfer fee.
And though the fee itself may be small potatoes by soccer transfer-market standards — a droplet in the vast ocean that separates our protagonists — this dispute has the potential to have far-reaching implications in the development of America’s top young soccer players.
“Essentially, the issue in this case was the payment of fees to a club that didn’t have that player under contract,” MLS president Mark Abbott said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon. “That’s the basic issue in play here.”
What is the argument and why does it matter?
Crossfire, the Redmond-based youth club that Yedlin played for between 2006 and 2010, is arguing, essentially, that MLS took money that should belong to the club and has yet to give a legitimate reason why.
Crossfire reached out to Tottenham in mid-February, triggering the letters to Yedlin’s former clubs like the one Hansen and Northwest Nationals received. One of those teams was the University of Akron, where Yedlin went to college, which told MLS.
Under FIFA rules, if a player moves during the course of his contract, 5 percent of the deal should be deducted from the total amount of the fee and distributed to the club or clubs involved in his training and development between the ages of 12 and 24.
First implemented in 2001, this rule was in part designed to prevent the bigger leagues from preying on weaker and usually poorer ones without giving something in return.
Under U.S. law, MLS and the federation maintain, such fees are illegal — and the league informed Tottenham as such. Crossfire reached out to both the U.S. Soccer Federation and the league asking for a more detailed explanation but received only a reference to an old court case.
What’s the problem?
Just as the United States doesn’t abide by every statute passed by the United Nations, so the federation and MLS claim that national law supersedes that of FIFA.
The legal precedent in question here is the court case Fraser vs. MLS, an antitrust lawsuit filed by eight players and spearheaded by former New England Revolution defender Iain Fraser. The ruling ultimately upheld the league’s single-entity structure — the system in which all teams act as one under one umbrella and are therefore legally incapable of conspiring with itself.
Though the U.S. federation declined to comment, the league’s stance is, basically, what transfer fee?
“There is no fee to take,” Abbott said. “The league was seeking a transfer fee and received a transfer fee. There are no solidarity and no training fees in the United States.”
Or, as Abbott bluntly put it, “You can’t take a fee that doesn’t exist.”
What’s the endgame?
Both Lance Reich, Crossfire’s lawyer, and Bernie James, the club’s director of coaching, insist that they don’t want to take this to court, that they would rather work through FIFA to reach a compromise.
This isn’t a new trend. The Dallas Texans, an elite youth club in the Southwest, have been grumbling about former player Clint Dempsey’s fees for years now — and, given how many millions of dollars Dempsey transfer fees have generated throughout his career, that’s no surprise.
Reich says at least 10 youth clubs are standing behind Crossfire, though most of them are staying the background.
Reich outlined what they want from U.S. Soccer and MLS in four steps:
- Stop taking solidarity fees immediately.
- Agree to pay back any fees owed in previous deals.
- Either implement FIFA rules in which youth teams collect transfer fees or work together to find another system.
- Make amends by fronting scholarship fees for disadvantaged families and inner-city club programs.
What happens now?
Regardless of how Crossfire’s grievance plays out, this issue isn’t going away. Caribbean clubs have complained in the past about the lack of solidarity fees paid out by MLS when their prospects head north, and they’re growing louder.
If Crossfire has its way, MLS will have to pay a higher premium for the talent it brings in from outside its own academies — both domestically and abroad.
When it comes to the youth club game, any shift could have an impact on the current pay-to-play system that has drawn criticism for pricing kids out and leaving high-level exposure to a select few.
“Any money that comes to us will go back to the kids, probably in the way of scholarships — doing something to keep costs under control and keep costs down,” Northwest Nationals’ Hansen said, a sentiment James echoed. “It would go on to help the club and kids that are sort of on the edge of being able to play at this level financially.”
Abbott, the MLS president, counters that even with legal issues aside, “there’s a fairness issue here, too. “That the player benefits from not having these types of fees.”
There is little new about the arguments, Abbott insists. Similar issues have blown over in the past and he says there’s little ambiguity in the Fraser case. There is little new about the reaction, either, Crossfire’s letter to FIFA accuses.
“When USSF is called to account for their actions,” the letter reads, “… they simply hand-wave with either irrelevant or apparently nonexistent U.S. law.”
One way or the other, those days appear to be over.