While leagues such as NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball are essentially monopolies, soccer players in this country have other, more lucrative, options.
Inside sports business
Walking out on teammates normally would earn an athlete in any American professional league a huge mark of shame.
Who can forget Milton Bradley packing up and taking off on the Mariners midgame in 2010? Players in most big-time sports here just don’t tolerate teammates bolting on them. Fans certainly are not inclined to put up with it, some even questioning the team loyalty of NFL players such as Jay Cutler when they miss games due to injury.
But soccer is a different animal. When left back Joevin Jones abandoned the Sounders, without permission, right before last week’s game against Vancouver to play in a “friendly’’ match for Trinidad and Tobago, the first instincts of his team weren’t to immediately lash out or discipline him. No, the Sounders tiptoed carefully in public, hoping to have Jones eventually come back.
And Jones isn’t the first soccer player to go AWOL doing something he wanted, or trying to better his financial situation. Right now, the expectation is that he’ll likely return after a pair of World Cup qualifying matches.
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One theory is he left to force the Sounders to release him from his contract by a Sept. 1 German transfer deadline. If that happens, Jones could play for German side SV Darmstadt several months earlier than expected and earn considerably more than his current $96,000 salary.
Jones already has a deal to play with that club starting next January.
And that global reach beyond America’s borders is what opens soccer up to this more than other major pro sports in this country.
If you get on the wrong side of the NFL — like, say, Colin Kaepernick — where are you going to play? Canada? Hey, I grew up there, but the CFL is nobody’s football paradise — cold as heck after September and the pay even colder.
It’s the same with the NBA and MLB. Sure, there are other pro basketball and baseball leagues internationally. But none has the overall prestige or — more important, money — to lure prime talent away from here. A struggling MLB player such as Cecil Fielder, or an aging one such as Kevin Youkilis, might head to Japan as a last-ditch attempt at prolonging careers, you won’t see All-Stars in their prime do it.
Even during the NBA lockout in 2011, few top players went overseas. Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets was the only All-Star to do so, signing with Turkish club Besiktas.
The closest thing we’ve seen to a high-talent player akin to Jones bolting in a major American sport was in 2013 when Ilya Kovalchuk abruptly retired from the NHL’s New Jersey Devils to play in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Kovalchuck, then age 30, had 12 years and $77 million left on his Devils contract when he retired, and he left the team in a serious lurch.
His move had repercussions in the NHL, making teams leery of signing Russian players to big contracts. The KHL at the time of Kovalchuck’s defection had begun expanding outside Russia to Belarus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia and Ukraine.
More recently, that league has struggled financially, with players reportedly owed millions of dollars. So that’s a problem that might ultimately take care of itself.
But the idea is there. Once the KHL showed it was willing to spend All-Star money and expand in prestige, it became a serious threat to NHL stability.
Which brings us back to Major League Soccer, still fledgling two decades into its existence compared with leagues in Europe. Money-wise, MLS has trouble competing even with second-division European sides, never mind the spend-happy Chinese Super League that snagged Obafemi Martins from the Sounders on the eve of the 2016 season.
The Sounders could have played hardball and demanded a much bigger transfer fee given how Martins leaving so late disrupted their plans. But in a global system, where everybody faces the same market realities, it’s best not to throw a tantrum when a player wants to leave.
After all, you never know what favors you might require from a certain foreign league or team down the road. Also, if word gets around that your team is “unreasonable,” then players might be less inclined to transfer here.
With Jones, the Sounders figure they have a better chance to win another MLS Cup with him than without him. So they won’t crucify him in public — and risk him sitting out the next four months without pay — even though he undoubtedly has disappointed coaches and teammates.
Interestingly enough, Jones didn’t even play in that “friendly’’ against Jamaica on Thursday. A journalist I contacted there Friday, Ruskin Mark of Caribbean Media Group, told me the team’s coach, Dennis Lawrence, was reluctant to play Jones because he’d left the Sounders without permission.
Teams do have to release players for meaningful international games within specially designated FIFA windows. But Jones left nearly a week before that window opened and the “friendly” wasn’t considered a meaningful game.
Apparently, the T & T squad didn’t want to burn some of that politesse and reciprocity with the Sounders. What goes around comes around in soccer, and everyone realizes it.
We’ve gotten so used to sports-league monopolies in this country that we sometimes forget what a comparatively open market can look like. And though soccer players no doubt frown on teammates leaving them high and dry, they’re a little more used to it.