In Part 2 of my interview with player representative and attorney Michael Wheeler of the MAE Agency, he discusses designated player success, MLS contracts that discourage international players, international players in the MLS combine, and the best new international signings of MLS for 2012. Click here for Part 1.
Interview with Mike Wheeler, Part 2
LE: What do you think of the 2011 designated player rule changes?
Wheeler: It’s positive to see MLS doing DPs for young players to make our league up-and-comers and more liquid transfers and show the international markets that rather than sending a player down to Argentina or Brazil, then to Europe, that now we’re buying these good South American players and putting them up here, finishing them and hopefully selling them to a bigger market.
LE: Do designated players influence their MLS coach?
Wheeler: Some of the teams have a strong management and ownership group. The teams in the MLS that can afford DPs have strong ownership and management where they’re not going to allow the DP to override the whole team. Beckham, over in LA, has a larger than life personality, but AEG is a big company. Red Bulls as well – they’re a big company, Austrian base and they know what they’re doing. I don’t see that playing into why some of these DPs aren’t having more success.
LE: Several designated players haven’t worked out. Is it the style of play or cultural issues or something else?
Wheeler: It could be several things. Some of these DPs don’t have close ties to their teammates and maybe expect more from their teammates. There’s such a big gap between a player that’s making $5 million and some out-of-college player who’s never played in the pros and there’s a big difference in terms of the experience and the know-how. There are several prominent DPs in the League that aren’t producing on the field and yet I know their tactical knowledge of the game is ten times more than the kid who just joined from an American college. But it’s all about being able to close that gap in experience and know-how between the star player with the DP hype surrounding him and having him be able to pull and count on that $42,000 player next to him.
LE: The semi-guaranteed contract is a huge issue for some players, especially international players. The Revolution’s Danish striker Rajko Lekic had never heard of a contract that wasn’t guaranteed until Serbian teammate Ilija Stolica, who brought a wife and child to the U.S., was suddenly cut.
Wheeler: The representative should have explained to him that lots of these contracts are semi-guaranteed where until the middle of season in July, that’s D-Day for these players, you can be cut. After you survive July, you’re here all the way till November. And now you need to see if, depending on the option or if it’s guaranteed, whether or not they’re going to exercise the options that can have you stay for the next year.
That whole process in explaining this to foreign players – as I’ve done many times before – it’s time-consuming and exhausting because the way the rest of the world works, you find a team and you’re good for however many years you’ve signed that contract. You won’t be negotiating how many years the contract is and whether or not there’s going to be an option. You try to get two and a half or three years, develop the kid in the right situation, put him in the transfer window and hope that he gets sold onto a bigger team.
Explaining MLS rules to these foreign players is tough and it’s the job of the representative to take him through all the nuances and differences of how MLS works compared to the rest of the world.
LE: With a six-month lease for apartment and car, if an international player is cut a couple months in, he’s out a huge amount of money in a foreign country without a job. That must be a huge deterrent for prospective internationals considering MLS.
Wheeler: There’s no question. And to be honest, I’ve had four players who were offered contracts here and I’ve told them – this is the deal, this is what they’re willing to give. No, they’re not covering your apartment. No, they’re not giving you a car. If you have that offer from Germany or Spain or Greece, I would take that offer. But there is a strong allure and attraction to playing in the U.S. with the music, TV and media, it draws a lot of interest from players coming over here and some bring their families as well.
LE: What’s the advantage to MLS of offering semi-guaranteed contracts?
Wheeler: It frees up a roster spot and gives them more cap room, so if they make a move in the middle of the season where they see a player they put a lot of money in and he’s just not working out, it now allows the coaching staff to make an immediate change in the middle of the season to right the ship. The coach’s job is on the line, he’s got to produce wins. So for him, it’s great to have these semi-guaranteed contracts and have the option to cut the player because then he’ll free up an international spot and potentially, a six-figure contract.
LE: But doesn’t that take proven players who have other choices out of the conversation? An ungrounded player might take his chances on flying across the Atlantic and flying back home in a few months, but for a successful player with children in school, that’s just a big mess.
Wheeler: Yes, you’re definitely right. The 30 year-olds who have a stellar playing record, great experience, model professionals, show up to work on time, take time to develop younger players – they’re not going to uproot their families and kids to take a semi-guaranteed contract where he could get cut in the middle of the season. When I speak to those type of players, I tell them if it’s semi-guaranteed, it’s not worth your time – I don’t care how badly you and your family want to live in the U.S., it’s not a good deal.
LE: Do you see MLS increasing the number of internationals on the rosters or do you think it’s sufficient the way it is?
Wheeler: I think it’s a good balance right now. Each team can have either eight or nine internationals because they can trade for an international spot from a team that’s not using their international roster spot. They need a domestic league to nurture and develop their players so they can one day be U.S. National team players. We have enough roster spots for those kids and we do need to fill the rest of the roster with experienced internationals and young internationals that have talent.
LE: What’s MLS doing to acclimate internationals when they come to the United States?
Wheeler: Usually you have the team administrator from each MLS team help acclimate those players, but often times there’s a direct connection to the MLS coaching staff where they’re going to help bring that player in the fold and make sure he’s comfortable. The team administrator will be the main person contact and make sure they get their social security number so they can get paid and a drivers license, help them out with what area to live in. The MLS teams don’t have a person who is a cultural liaison like the big teams in England, France or Germany, but even at the big clubs sometimes kids are left to fend for themselves.
LE: To date, who’s the most promising international entering MLS in 2012?
Wheeler: The kid over at the Timbers, Jose Valencia, from Independiente Santa Fe. He comes from good pedigree, his father Adolpho Valencia was a footballer and he did real well. For the past year, he’s been with the U-20 Colombian National Team and he’ll be a bright young prospect if he develops correctly.
LE: Which players from the draft will make the biggest impact in 2012?
Wheeler: Enzo Martinez (Real Salt Lake) is a real interesting player and could make an impact. And Andrew Jean-Baptiste (Portland Timbers) from U Conn, Haitian descent, if he can develop a little more technique on the field – physically, he’s a monster.
LE: Should young internationals be included in the MLS college combine?
Wheeler: MLS needs to put the young internationals into their own window. They didn’t have any internationals selected in the first two rounds. Putting those guys in that position, it takes away from the domestic players and allowing them to show off their strengths. The MLS teams are doing a better and better job scouting in college and identifying young players, but having these internationals come in and play in the combine, it disrupts from a communication standpoint. Some of them do not speak any English, so you’ve got a kid coming out of college trying to earn a contract and he’s trying to communicate with a player and make him look good and look good himself and they can’t even communicate.
In the MLS combine you’ve got a college player who’s American and he might be playing with a Panamanian player who can’t speak any English. Those two kids on the backline for the first time, they’re going to have some tough problems trying to be a solid unit, go up together, hold the line, yet they can’t even communicate. It’s tough as it is playing with 11 players who you don’t know. It’s even more difficult when you have players who don’t speak the same language. I’m all for a international player coming in, I just think there’s a better way to showcase those players to MLS teams rather than just throwing them in the mix like that.
Read Part 1 of my interview with Michael Wheeler here.
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