In MLS, No Price On Team Continuity

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

When MLS Cup kicks off this afternoon at RFK Stadium, David Beckham will not be there. Neither will Cuauht¿moc Blanco, Juan Pablo Angel, Claudio Reyna or Denilson, the league's other marquee players whose lucrative signings were made possible under a new rule allowing teams to acquire expensive talent outside MLS's salary constraints.

Instead, seven of the 22 probable starters for the New England Revolution and Houston Dynamo in today's championship match earn less than $100,000 and only two make more than $300,000.

Beckham was guaranteed $6.5 million and, because of an ankle injury, appeared in only five of the Los Angeles Galaxy's regular season matches for a rate of $1.3 million per game -- a shade more than the entire Revolution lineup for the full year.

While Beckham's popularity proved invaluable to MLS's global image and Angel and Blanco were finalists for the league's most valuable player award, their contributions did not translate into enough victories to reach MLS Cup. The Galaxy failed to make the playoffs. With Angel and Reyna, the New York Red Bulls faded the second half of the regular season and lost in the first round, as did Denilson (one goal in eight games) and FC Dallas. Blanco's Chicago Fire fell one game short of the final.

"You can't say anything against those players because, as individuals, they've produced pretty good results," Revolution defender Jay Heaps said. "The right situation was to keep our team together as it was. It's an interesting concept. We haven't given up on it, but it has to be the right fit."

While some teams took advantage of the "designated player rule," creating a vast salary disparity, Houston and New England retained an egalitarian approach. The regular season conference champions, D.C. United and Chivas USA, also decided to delay acquiring a marquee player for at least another year, although United appears close to signing pricey Argentine star Juan Sebastian Veron for 2008.

"It's a hard call," Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad said. "It certainly creates problems with the salary cap. But what the teams [in the championship game] have said is, 'We'd rather pay everyone decent money, maybe not two or three guys outrageous money.' And I think it has worked so far."

Under the designated player option -- unofficially called "The Beckham Rule" because it cleared the way for the Galaxy to sign the world's most popular player -- $400,000 of the player's earnings applied toward the team's $2.1 million salary cap and was paid by the league. The club's investors are responsible for the balance of the salary.

Blanco was guaranteed $2.6 million, Angel $1.6 million, Reyna $1.2 million and Denilson $880,000 (with a big increase in 2008 if his option is exercised by Dallas). Each team is permitted to sign one designated player, but is free to trade for the rights to a second, as New York did.

"It would have to be the perfect scenario on and off the field," said Mike Burns, the Revolution's director of soccer. "Over the last few years, we have been able to retain a lot of our core guys. You can't do that forever, but the results have been favorable."

Continuity has bred success for Houston and New England, who will meet in MLS Cup for the second consecutive year. Before moving to Texas prior to the 2006 season, the Dynamo won the 2001 and 2003 titles as the San Jose Earthquakes. The Revolution, seeking its first title, is appearing in the final for the fourth time in six years.

Except for rookie midfielder Wells Thompson, every one of the Revolution's probable starters today has been with the team at least three years. Seven of Houston's probables have spent three-plus seasons with the club and another, Richard Mulrooney, returned after two years away.

"In soccer, there are no plays," said goalie Matt Reis, in his fifth season with the Revolution. "It is all done while we are out there -- you make it up as you go along -- and to have the same players on the field year in and year out creates a sixth sense. A lot of stuff goes unsaid."

Over the past three seasons, the Dynamo (33) and Revolution (37) have used the fewest players in the league. Real Salt Lake called on 33 just this year.

Continuity has also carried into the coaching ranks. Steve Nicol, a Scot who starred at Liverpool and came to America in 1999, has been in charge of the Revolution since the middle of the 2002 season. Dominic Kinnear, born in Scotland and reared in Northern California, was a San Jose/Houston assistant for three years before taking the top job in 2004.

Management stuck with them despite lackluster results by both clubs in 2004. In contrast, New York gave up on Bruce Arena this fall after just 15 months.

"When you keep a good amount of players with your team, you know exactly what you are going to get from these guys," Kinnear said. "You know how they are in good times, you know how they are in bad times, you know their characteristics, you know how they react in certain situations. We've grown together."

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