Major League Soccer often takes advantage of college players by offering rock-bottom salaries, many believe. Most never make up it later in their careers, leading to inequities in league salaries.

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Cristian Roldan’s first professional contract offer should have brought about an ending of sorts. Instead, it was just beginning.

The behind-the-scenes negotiations pitted Roldan, then a freshman at Washington weighing his professional ambitions, against Major League Soccer, which wants to attract young talent at the lowest possible cost.

Roldan, at least, had the business sense and support system to wait it out, staying at UW for his sophomore year before finally accepting an MLS offer.

Highs and lows

The Sounders’ salaries for 2015 have a huge disparity from high to low.

High Clint Dempsey at $4,505,941

Low 13 players make less than $75,000. Charlie Lyon and Oniel Fisher make $50,000.

He’s one of the lucky ones.

Roldan’s case highlights ongoing tension between the league and collegiate prospects. MLS wants to limit costs even at the point of entry and fill out the bottom of its static salary structure. Players want to compete at the highest level possible without sacrificing their future earning power.

The dance goes like this: Kids with at least some interest in turning pro put out feelers, and MLS informally reaches out with a ballpark range of rookie salaries. In the spirit of negotiation, the league starts low.

“They send you a contract, and you kind of say yes or no,” Roldan recalls. “The initial contract is not what you want to see, so everybody usually says, ‘No. Why would I want to leave school for that?’ Other players will agree with it and that’s that.”

Players cannot sign with agents without jeopardizing their NCAA eligibility, and the MLS SuperDraft is notoriously fickle. They can try to work through other mediums for rough estimates of their value — through agents as sanctioned “advisers” and otherwise — but that’s an imperfect science.

“Let’s be honest: It’s five agencies and one governing body,” UW coach Jamie Clark said. “It’s cloak and dagger, and it’s incestuous.”

Clark, in his fifth season coaching the Huskies and the son of longtime Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark, knows the process well. His UW teams have churned out plenty of pros in the past five years, and Clark says he tries to set aside his biases to play the father figure looking out for the best interest of his kids.

Prospects from less established programs have less of a window. And not every teenager is as levelheaded as Roldan, who still lives with a group of his former Husky teammates in the University District and takes UW classes after Sounders practice with eyes on an eventual degree.

“My take on this is that the guys or who have the security blanket to sign never do, and the guys who need college the most tend to sign the earliest,” Clark said.

Picking the wrong door can have lasting effects on a player’s finances.

The Major League Soccer players’ union dropped its biannual salary release this month and the list is a jarring reminder of just how far the league’s payroll has to go to live up to the first name of its title.

Sounders FC defender Zach Scott — who has made more than 300 appearances for the club — is due just $65,000 in total compensation this year. Midfielder Andy Rose, who has played in 81 MLS games across four seasons, is on the league minimum salary of $60,000. Even that floor is a significant jump from the $36,500 and change minimum of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Roldan, though, is making more than $100,000, slightly more than veteran forward Chad Barrett, who has logged more than 250 MLS appearances and ranks in the top 10 of the league’s active all-time goal scorers.

“We were the steppingstones,” Barrett said earlier this year. “We’re the reason why the league’s here. … I think eventually, after the next CBA, things will catch up a little bit better. Unfortunately, it just won’t be in my time. I’m only hoping they come up with some kind of pension plan 20 years down the road for my knees when I can’t walk anymore.”

The difference, in Roldan’s case, is leverage. He could afford to wait, to go back to school like Jordan Morris, Stanford standout and would-be Sounders homegrown player, has for two offseasons running. Others, like Seattle second-round draft pick Tyler Miller out of Northwestern, elect to play abroad.

Once a player signs with MLS, they enter a fixed system. The new CBA agreed upon earlier this year includes free agency, but only for players with eight years of league service and at least 28 years old.

“I think I’m one of the few players who qualifies,” Barrett said Thursday with a laugh.

It’s not just about the numbers after the dollar sign, either. Clark encourages his players to push for longer contracts, to make sure they give themselves a shot if the transition to the pro game doesn’t go smoothly.

Roldan got three years of salary guaranteed plus two option seasons. As one of the dwindling number of Generation Adidas signings, Roldan also gets his scholarship covered despite leaving school two years early.

The shift away from the Generation Adidas program — one of MLS’ original pushes to attract young talent going back to the 1990s that has included Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey — hints at a change in emphasis.

“I don’t know that we should be enticing kids to leave school,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. Clubs are now looking to stock their own academies to funnel prospects through their own pipelines.

The college game, at least as a market for talent, is increasingly marginalized.

“I think the MLS could be more upfront about their dealing with players,” Clark said. “I just think the offers have to legitimately be better. Actually, the offers have started to get worse.”

Roldan seriously considered leaving school after his freshman season, even researching agents, but was underwhelmed by the initial contract offer. He says he even initially decided to return for his junior season this fall, before a late change of heart and his desire to prove himself as a pro overcame his frustration with the process.

“If the MLS were able to incorporate what the NBA has done and give them a little bit of leeway to negotiate a little bit before they were able to go out, I think that would mean a ton,” Roldan said. “I think a lot of players would look into that. But it’s difficult, because they lowball you at first, and you can’t negotiate, but you want to leave school …”

The pieces all fell together for Roldan. He got drafted by a team that allowed him to continue his degree at the same school without even moving out. He used his leverage to negotiate what is, by MLS terms, a solid contract that allows him plenty of time to prove himself.

Roldan, though, was one of the lucky ones.

Sounders 2015 salaries
The annual average guaranteed compensation number includes a player’s base salary and all signing and guaranteed bonuses annualized over the term of the player’s contract, including option years.
Player Pos. Total compensation
Clint Dempsey F $4,505,941
Obafemi Martins F 3,000,000
Nelson Valdez F 1,215,000
Osvaldo Alonso M 789,667
Roman Torres D 513,812
Brad Evans F 302,666
Chad Marshall D 291,666
Erik Friberg GK 202,500
Andreas Ivanschitz M 201,250
Tyrone Mears D 174,000
Lamar Neagle M 167,833
Stefan Frei GK 165,000
Leonardo Gonzalez D 165,000
Gonzalo Pineda M 160,000
Troy Perkins GK 136,662
Thomas Bedinelli M 133,125
Cristian Roldan M 102,000
Chad Barrett F 100,000
Marco Pappa M 75,000
Damion Lowe D 71,375
Andres Correa D 68,166
Darwin Jones F 66,250
Zach Scott D 65,000
Michael Azira D 62,826
Aaron Kovar M 60,200
Andy Craven F 60,000
Jimmy Ockford D 60,000
Dylan Remick D 60,000
Andy Rose M 60,000
Victor Mansaray F 53,500
Oniel Fisher D 50,000
Charlie Lyon GK 50,000