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A VIEW FROM THE FORT: The MLS Middle-Class Squeeze; What Is A Footballer To Do? Plus An Interview with Paul Mariner

Posted by Mike Marshall on February 4, 2009

By Jim Dow

Among a wide variety of endangered groups that occupy our planet, the current climate seems ever more threatening to that constantly shrinking species, the middle-class. While the media caterwauls constantly as the market plunges and the situation is surely no laughing matter, it is interesting to analyze the task facing Major League Soccer in this regard as the league begins its’ fourteenth season with fifteen entries, including a brand-new, deep pockets club in Seattle that just may up the ante for everyone.

U.S. soccer’s top division appears to be as feudally divided as any other emerging economy, with a few lucky souls, mostly slightly past it players imported for show, making pots of money and the vast majority on Wal-Mart wages, hoping for a break in the form of a relatively fat contract from a club in second or third tier European league currently made prosperous by a fortuitous combination of porcine television contracts and profligate ownership.

Of course there are a few folks, like our own Shalrie Joseph and Taylor Twellman, who cash pay packets that are by no standards petit bourgeoisie and might even do a lower end futures trader proud, particularly at the moment, but for the most part ambitious players need to go abroad to garner good wages, to say nothing of competition.

The blunt, painful fact, is that a rising, quality performer like Michael Parkhurst has no choice but to move laterally to a team like FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark’s Superligaen where despite crowds averaging half of the size of those found at Gillette the small club can afford to double or triple the classy defender’s salary and offer a chance to go in the broader shop window should he win a place in the first eleven.

If MLS has a core set of players it has to be the likes of Jonathan Bornstein, Brian Carroll, Kenny Cooper, Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Chad Marshall, Chris Rolfe, Marvell Wynne, etc, or the recently departed Parkhurst, all still on the uptick and of a teachable age who seem to improve with every season. Certainly great greybeards like Angel, Blanco and Schelloto have added skill, spice and subtlety to a league hat is long on effort and often short on style but the hopefully perpetual production of ever better U.S. bred players has to be at once the focus for development as well as posing a difficult problem in terms of retention.

While the college game should become irrelevant as a significant player source for the U.S. professional league within a decade, until the MLS youth academies start producing players and league scouts seriously scour communities of recently arrived citizens, a significant albeit limited amount of the talent needed to keep as many as 18 teams stocked with competitive players will still have to be pried from the sometimes harmful embrace of the NCAA. And even if this is done effectively, as it certainly has with the Revolution, what is the gain if your best projects often leave for greener pastures and the resulting transfer fees, if any, appear to be left to languish unspent for replacement talent outside of the flawed feeder system of college soccer?

If MLS generally and the Revs in particular are establishing themselves as selling entities exporting players to increasingly better clubs and leagues then measures need to be taken to assure fans and players alike  that there will be a steady inward flow of teachable, watchable talent.  From the supporters point of view as long as the games are a pleasure to watch and the team plays an attractive style with competitive results, the coming and going of players isn’t a problem. Change in high stakes sport is expected, particularly in soccer where the market for horseflesh isn’t confined to the continental United States. But to be taken seriously as a club, there needs to be some assurance that the powers that be are committed to bringing in and sometimes keeping, the best players that they can possibly find, regardless of age, experience, nationality and, to some degree, cost.

Every team needs a core group of players who are at once capable but still improving. Even the current greybeard champs, A.C. Milan, send out a few players who could be said to be at the height of their powers to blend with the amazing oldsters like Beckham, Maldini, Pirlo and Seedorf. Watching the rossoneri stroke it around since the Galaxy’s most famous geezer showed up has proven to be a great show and on a lesser level, one hopes that Messer’s Mariner, Nicol and Williams will be given the cash to bring a stud or two in to blend with the current mix of youth and experience.

With the pre-season fast approaching I spoke with Revolution Assistant Coach Paul Mariner on a broad range of topics related to this subject. While the interview was conducted before the MLS Combine, Draft and subsequent African scouting/signing sojourn, his remarks are, as always, helpful and informative.

JIM: Currently the team seems to be constructed of one group of young, fairly inexperienced and unproven players, a second group of seemingly wise, old heads and those fast approaching old head stature and then, aside from Badilla, Castro and Larentowicz there aren’t many players who might be thought of as mid-career. Does that seem right to you?

PAUL: Well, I think Twellman would come into that mix, how old is he, 27, 28 years of age?

JIM: I guess you are right, I keep thinking that he is a little older, given his long stewardship with the Revs, but I do think of both he and Shalrie as approaching grizzled veteran status, despite the fact that they both trade on the physical side.

PAUL: When you have those guys who are round about that age I don’t think you can say they are past anything, rather they are coming into themselves.

JIM: the question that I would have though, is in figuring out the composition of a team does the age spread of youth, mid-career and older players really matter in the way the unit functions over a long campaign?

PAUL: Well it does, there’s the old adage in football that you are never going to win anything with kids and you never are going to win anything with people that are too old, and so you definitely need a balance. If you look at the (current) squad and you look at Albright, Badilla, Larentowicz, Castro, Twellman Joseph (that’s) probably about it for the group that we’ve got and then you have all the senior pros (Heaps, Ralston, Reis), it’s not such a bad mix, not such a bad mix.

JIM: I was just thinking, in looking at the team as we go into pre-season, that it seemed kind of stretched out age-wise, in terms of the players that you depend on.

Going on, I take it that you are not off to Argentina again, are there any irons in the fire with bringing in players, you know there have even been rumors circulated about Christian Gomez, among others?

PAUL: Yeah… well, you know what, we are not going to rule anything out because it is pretty easy for people to see what we need… We lost Michael (Parkhurst) and obviously we’ve got to fill that hole, we need to look at the goalkeeping situation, we’ve lost Christman, so we need to attend to that situation. So we’ve been in recently and pouring through the DVD’s that people have sent us and it’s the same old story; either they want too much money or they’re not good enough and it is… a problem that we have. But we’ll try and rectify it; we’ve got a couple of irons in the fire.

JIM: Do you think that this is actually something of a league-wide problem, that MLS has progressed to the point where to get a player that can make an impact that you are getting into the inflationary category where you are bidding against more highly financed, better level leagues and clubs?

PAUL: As far as we’re concerned, yes, it would have to be a special player for us to splash out so much money. We’ve looked long and hard with the draft and we’ve looked long and hard with the stuff that people send us and with the contacts that we’ve got throughout the world, so there are players out there but it is a question of everything falling into place right, you know, is he a good guy? Can he play the way we want him to play? Would he fit into the team chemistry or the atmosphere? All that sort of stuff, it’s a big problem and it is probably frustrating for all the fans but it is equally frustrating for us as well, because we’re literally tireless in trying to sift through the players (on offer) and get the right players in.

JIM: Along those lines, the draft is presumably pretty loaded with possible good players and because of the new roster regulations I should think that there would be some maneuvering and trading and moving up and down for teams to get towards the person or persons they want, is there a lot of that stuff going on?

PAUL: Yeah, a lot of negotiation has been going on between the teams; it’s not actually set yet who’s going to be at the combine. Some players are pulling out through injury, some players have decided to go abroad, so it’s not actually set in stone yet… it’s in a state of flux. We have our eye on a few players, we won’t actually see them in the flesh, we (do) see a lot of the ACC teams going up to BC, so we know a lot of those guys and that seems to be a pretty strong conference but we are looking forward to seeing some of the guys from the middle of the country and from out west (but) the jury is out, we’ve spoken to all the coaches, we’ve got our notes in place, we’re where we want to be at this stage of the proceedings.

JIM: Along those lines, you guys have certainly developed a reputation for bringing along college players and turning them into professionals who often move on to bigger paydays, if not to better leagues. I don’t think that there is another team in MLS that has sent off a similar group of home grown and nurtured talent like Dempsey, Dorman, Noonan and Parkhurst, with Joseph and Twellman also being able to go had the offers been accepted, By my figuring, that is an average of a player a year moving, or potentially moving up. Number one, is here any other team that has done that, with U.S. bred talent and, number two, are the college kids aware of that track record when they come to the Revolution?

PAUL: I honestly don’t know the answer to that, Sometimes we (Stevie Nicol and I) sit together at the combine and sometimes we sit apart and compare notes later, it’s not an exact science and as we’ve said in the past, if anybody can tell you that the people that you select are going to work out the way that they work out, that’s not really true. I mean you can hope for the best, you think you’ve got somewhat of a decent eye for a player but again, it is where you lie in the draft, we’ve got several selections this year in the draft and it depends, I think our first pick is ten, so I think there will be a player there for us but is this guy (going to be) a number one player, I don’t know.

JIM: I remember the first time that I did an interview with you, almost five years ago, you were raving about Michael Videra then, and he was just about to go off to college and you had just come from working at the Bolts, his club team and now, in the mold of Joseph and Twellman, he goes off to Europe and it doesn’t work out and now he’s back here
with the Revs, basically as a rookie. What’s the task ahead for him and how does he fit into the plans of a team whose apparent long suit is midfielders and may switch from a 3-5-2 to a 4-4-2, leaving one less midfielder on the field?

PAUL: If you had asked us about that last year, we figure he would have gone in the top five in the draft, but when he was hanging around, still left in what, the second round, I think it was, we genuinely thought that if he came to us that we could work with him and because he’s got wonderful strength, he’s got wonderful vision, an eye for a pass you know, he’s got all the things we think that a central midfield player in this league needs. So he goes over to Europe, gets injured, never cracks the lineup (at Hamilton) and by all accounts it didn’t go particularly well, so he’s sort of back to square one, in fact I think he’s a little bit further behind square one. So he’s got a lot to prove, he’s got some good players to try and knock off, if you say for example that Larentowicz, Joseph and Ralston is our starting three centrally, if we go with three in the middle of the park, then they are tough players to knock out. So we’ll see what happens with him, it’s all about appetite, it’s all about training ethic, it’s all about diet and rest and everything that you need to become a professional… He worked really well when Stevie and I worked with him when he was a youngster. Everything we put into him he would do to the letter of the law and he’s got that little bit of flair to go with it, so we can’t wait to see him play, we think that we’re getting a very good player and I’m sure Michael will want to show us that he’s that good player that we think he can be.

JIM: In a certain way, the Revolution have come to the point where you are the MLS version of the academy, thinking about teams like West Ham in England, Argentinos Juniors in Buenos Aires, or Santos Laguna in Mexico that develop players and that reputation, as I said, may well be in the minds of young players coming out of college, I don’t know but I’m making that presumption.

PAUL: Well, if you follow that thought through, assuming the players in college look at MLS, and study the league and college coaches do the same, you would think that would follow on but I’m not quite sure whether it does follow on.

JIM: Feel free to hit me with a baseball bat and say I don’t want to answer this but with great respect to everyone concerned, there are only fifteen head coaching jobs available in MLS but what the hell is going on? It seems that you and Stevie have made such a mark, particularly in dealing with the unique circumstances of player development here in the league, it would just seem like a no-brainer for you to get picked off by another team?

PAUL: Well, I don’t do the hiring or firing; all I can do is… The Kraft organization, Sunil and Steve, they let me go along and interview and all I can do is do me best and obviously I’ve not been able to (get there), my credentials are not (deemed) good enough, or I’ve not interviewed well enough, so I’ve not got the job(s), so it is just the way it is. I’m very philosophical about it and I’m looking forward to the combine, I’m looking forward to the season and I’m looking forward to getting out of this freezing cold weather.

I don’t know Jim, really, as I’ve said, I don’t do the hiring and firing, so there must be something wrong with me, I don’t know what it is but…

JIM: I didn’t mean to take this in a negative direction, the question that strikes me is that I think the Revs and Houston are kind of a model for this league as things have currently evolved and particularly given that so many U.S. players are now having a chance to go to Europe. You would think that younger players would want to be put in a position where they can learn the most and possibly move through…

PAUL: There’s a couple of models, I think that you can count on the fingers of one hand the players that have gone over (to Europe) and been successful going from college right out to playing in the pros. Now, you’ve got to remember that playing in the pros (in Europe) for me would be in the Premier League or Serie A, the best leagues in the world, that’s where I’d want to play. Some of the other players, well like Michael’s going to Scandinavia, it’s all about money. Michael loved it, he’s been courted, he loved working with Stevie and he loves the Revs and everything about it but, you know, you just have to go, he’s got to look after his family, he’s got a short career, we completely understand it. But if you look at what Dempsey did and you look at what Parkhurst did, I don’t know if they were reluctant to joining the MLS, but (they did) and they went to a decent club and they worked very hard and they got their just rewards and they are reaping their rewards now, but there are a couple of ways of doing it.

Some people are advised by their agents to go straight from university and give it a go, (but) being European I know how difficult it is, people over in Europe playing top class professional football, well they are not going to welcome you with open arms if you are from the States because you are taking, or trying to take their job. So it’s not
all “come on in, we’ll help you out,” it’s certainly a dog eat dog situation and I don’t know if kids coming out of college are prepared for that, some are, some aren’t. But I do think that players coming into the MLS and getting the right grooming and getting in the right environment, then I think they can certainly see their contracts out and move on, it’s good for the league and it’s good for the player.

JIM: On a lighter note, I don’t know if you heard that recently Chelsea was proposing to start charging their players for lunch at he training ground, with that in mind, do you think there might be a new, pay sandwich machine down at Gillette Stadium this season?

PAUL: I read that (too) and I thought it was a little farcical, I mean these guys are making incredible amounts of money.

JIM: The idea of Michael Ballack with a tray of grub in line at a cash checkout.

PAUL: I would think that it is in the clubs interest to make sure that, certainly that those players get some good food down them. I know that it is different over there, since the players can basically buy whatever they want, they can probably employ their own chefs too and some probably do. I just don’t understand it, whether it is a publicity stunt or what; maybe Abramovich is tightening his belt a little bit, like everybody. I mean in the realm of things, how much are they saving? Trying to feed thirty people? I can’t believe that it would be enormously expensive but .(laughing).

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