Of Compensation, Or Lack Thereof: Plus An Interview with Edgaras Jankauskas
Posted by tonybiscaia on October 9, 2009
A VIEW FROM THE FORT By Jim Dow
The last few days have offered up a fascinating comparison in the world of world football when TV38 showed last Saturday’s stirring contest between the New England Revolution and Colorado Rapids followed by Monday’s ESPN broadcast of Manchester City’s millionaires paying a visit to Birmingham’s Aston Villa. Certainly there was much to play for in either case, whether as an early season tussle for a place in Europe or a close to the wire clash between two clubs fighting for an MLS playoff spot.
In one situation the stakes were for millions, in the other, well, for practically peanuts but both contests were played at a high intensity, with all four teams covering acres of genuine greensward in pursuit of a wildly pinging ball and one another’s ankles. There were crunching tackles, delicate flicks and wild swipes, beautifully taken goals and misplays worthy of a pickup match between two U-10 teams addled by the aftereffects of the swine flu. Both encounters ended 1-1 and left all concerned mildly frustrated despite being mutually excellent adverts for football at both Premiership and MLS level.
What really struck me, admittedly as a hardly neutral observer, was how slight, albeit significant, the difference was between the two levels of quality, given the enormous, indeed cavernous and yes, obscene gap in compensation and reward available for the assorted participants. At certain moments the Premiership thoroughbreds battling it out in Balti-land had as much trouble pulling the ball down on the deck and stringing passes together as their poverty-stricken counterparts a half a continent and full ocean apart on a cold night in Colorado.
In the current economic climate any number of formerly reputable enterprises have gone to the wall when a significant portion of their primary assets became tied up in paying off creditors and servicing debt that could no longer be applied towards actually delivering a better product or service. While it isn’t precisely the same situation, the New England Revolution currently have over 45% ($1,124,000) of their salary budget of approximately $2.5 million tied up in players who aren’t able to play and most likely won’t be for the remaining 2009 season. Of course it is harsh to judge such sums as money badly spent considering the yeoman service of stalwarts such as Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman, to name just two, but the fact is that much of the higher priced horse flesh on this squad such as Gabriel Badilla at $138,000, Steve Ralston ($150,000), Chris Albright ($176,000), Edgaras Jankauskas ($240,000) and Taylor Twellman ($420,000) are down for the count, leaving the field to mainly more bargain basement teammates such as Darius Barnes, Kehli Dube, Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson plus assorted African imports, all drawing pay packets that range between $34 and 50K. And the paucity of these figures becomes even more blatant when the three Generation Adidas players on New England’s books, Alston ($104,000), Colaluca ($108,000) and Igwe ($108,000) are considered, since they do not count against the salary cap and don’t cost Kraft FC a farthing in compensation.
In point of fact, the almost completely cut-price lineup that Stevie Nicol put out against Colorado last Saturday draws a total pay packet of $1,200,576 or an average of $100,048 per season for the 12 players who appeared in the game and these valuations were completely thrown off by the three Gen Ads lads, plus the last senior worthies capable of taking the field, Joseph and Reis. Six of Saturday’s stalwarts make $34K per season and one, the combative Ghanaian Emmanuel Osei, pulls down a whopping $50K. So the value of the lame and halt far exceeded that of the spry and successful, horrible penalty call aside, particularly if you add the salaries of the injured Castro and Heaps and the criminally underpaid and, hopefully for his own self-esteem, soon to be solvent in Scandinavia, Jeff Larentowicz.
While salary figures in MLS are hardly an accurate measure of quality as witness the obscenity of a four-year veteran and almost All Star like Big Red making $34K, the penury isn’t by any means limited to FC Kraft. Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America recently put together an underpaid All Star team consisting of Brad Knighton (Revs) and Jon Conway (Chivas USA) in goal, a backline of AJ DeLaGarza (Galaxy), Darrius Barnes (Revs), Eric Brunner (Crew), Jair Benitez (Dallas), Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (Seattle) and George John (Dallas). The midfielders were Andre Luiz (San Jose), Jeff Larentowicz (Revs), Corey Ashe, Geoff Cameron, Stuart Holden (all Houston) and Sinisa Ubiparipovic (Red Bulls) and the front line was made up of Kheli Dube (Revs), Steven Lenhart (Crew), Bryan Jordan (Galaxy), Jesus Padilla and Jorge Flores (Chivas USA) and Dominic Oduro (Houston). None of these players earn more than $36,000, making the MLS salary structure the professional sports equivalent of what one might expect in a maquiladora on the down low side of the Tex/Mex border, maybe worthy of a raid by inspectors looking for criminally penurious reimbursement for significantly hazardous (think Field Turf) employment.
To put a fine point on it the average salary of the 30 senior Man City players currently on the books is 66 times the average salary of the 12 Revvies who took the field in Colorado, or counting Alston, Colaluca and Igwe, the average salary for the 25 New England players on the 2009 squad is about $112,000, or slightly above the League One average of $108,560, far less than half the Championship norm of $313,200 and around 11% of the Premiership average of $1,081,600. These figures come from a survey conducted by the Independent newspaper as well as the English Professional footballers Association (PFA). With almost all the MLS teams at or near the salary cap limit (and the Revvies certainly are at that point) typical Major League Soccer players in the United States make only a few thousand dollars more than players in what amounts to the Third Division of English football. While there is no question that the salaries in the U.K. are currently bolstered by a perfect storm of big television contracts, trickledown cash from the upper divisions to the lower ones, deep pockets chairmen besotted with the idea of doing a multiple division ascension to the promised land and higher ticket prices at the gate, most observers of the English and European game predict a crash at some point, the cash cow has been milked and milked again.
So when it was reported by New of the World last August that Manchester City’s whopping annual wage bill has crossed the 100 million-a-year pound mark for players like Robinho (160,000 pounds a week) $13.3 million a year, Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez (150,000 pounds), $12.5 million annually, Gareth Barry and Kolo Toure (120,000 pounds) $9.9 million who are the top earners for the perpetually underachieving Sky Blues compared with proven quality veterans such as Shalrie Joseph ($450,000 yearly) and Taylor Twellman ($420,000), well, it is sobering to say the least and a foolish but graphic illustration of just how far there is to go if MLS is to persuade its’ players not to bolt for solvency in Scandinavia.
When first encountered Edgaras Jankauskas could easily be Scandinavian himself, a sort of end of career counter to people like Parkhurst, newly come to New England in pursuit of a final pay day at the end of an illustrious career. The fact is that the lanky Lithuanian is totally charming, something of a philosopher in multiple languages. I was told that his first day on the job he gave interviews in three different tongues and then joked with his teammates in another two and regardless of what he is speaking his responses to questions are measured, serious and informative. I spoke with him after training, before the recent glut of injuries and his observations are both intelligent and prescient in light of the situation the team faces going into the final three matches of the 2009 season.
JIM: What I am interested in talking to you about is the fact that you come here to the States ands to the evolution with an enormous amount of experience, having played in a variety of different leagues and competitions and to get an overall estimation of the difference between where you have played before and where you are now, in MLS?
EDGARAS: Well, there isn’t a big difference because it is the same rules, eleven against eleven and, well three refs and (there) we go. But the main difference would be that in Europe soccer is much more popular than in America and that is understandable because in your culture baseball and football (are) number one, (they) are the sports of the country and soccer has yet to gain that much attention probably and that makes the difference because in Europe those soccer countries like Spain, Portugal, France, (etc.) you start with the soccer news and of course it makes the general quality of (the) sport higher, there is much more attention from the media, from people, players get known everywhere so it puts more pressure on them and here it is totally different but if we talk about the quality of the game, I think it is a decent quality here, in this league you never get the easy games, nor the easy wins.
JIM: It is very competitive.
EDGARAS: Yes, and it is a nice experience for me, from (the off field) side the organization is good, inside the organization it is of a higher level, more so than in Europe, so…
JIM: Interesting, so the support for the players in terms of the way that the team is run day to day, the quality of the conditions when you travel, the dressing rooms, the training facilities, etc. these things are of a high level of quality?
EDGARAS: There isn’t a big difference.
JIM: (referring to the training pitch at Foxboro) It is beautiful grass.
EDGARAS: Even better than in most European countries…
JIM: (pointing to the stadium) Now how about over there?
EDGARAS: Well, I didn’t mention that because the surface is artificial and in Europe you never play on that, it is, like, forbidden.
JIM: It is interesting in that regard talking to some of the U.S. kids who have grown up on the stuff, some of them actually prefer it whereas those of us who have some perspective beyond the States just think it is awful and damages not only the game itself but the players.
EDGARAS: Yes, doctors say that it affects your tendons badly and, well, in the beginning it was hard, the surface is much harder and the heels and tendons hurt after games, the problem is I think that it takes you more time to recover and it puts you at greater risk to get injured. But, well, we have to face that, it’s life and it is flat, like Beckham says.
JIM: I notice that watching you play that you have, at least by U.S. standards, a very, very good touch on the ball and you tend to, how shall I say it, protect it extremely well. Does that become more difficult on a slick, plastic surface?
EDGARAS: Well, depending on the weather conditions it (can be) hard, the surface is very different when there are rainy conditions but as far as touch or ball protection, that is the thing of technique which is important at a high level you cannot (be comfortable) to lose many balls, in Europe, sometimes, great teams they don’t forgive you (for) that.
JIM: You mean if you lose it, your team might not see the ball again for a while.
EDGARAS: Yes, you know (your) team has to recover the ball, so you cannot lose the ball easily, that is the problem, so you know that ten guys will have to run to get this ball back so, with respect you try to keep the ball as long as possible, you know (that) you must not lose it.
JIM: So, in a sense, protecting the ball is a gesture of respect, of consideration for your teammates, you are preserving them from too much work as much as you are preserving the ball itself, they don’t have to go and attack defensively to get it back.
EDGARAS: Yes, nobody likes to run behind (or after) the ball, it is always better when the team possesses the ball and that is the main thing in this sport, because you have to play with the ball, well you have to play without the ball as well, but that makes for less of a pleasure.
JIM: When people talk about soccer here, compared to the rest of the world, they often say that in Europe and Latin America the ball always moves faster than the players do whereas here it is the opposite, the players move faster than the ball, does that seem to be the case?
EDGARAS (laughing): There could be a little difference, well, yes, that’s right because the ball always goes faster than players…
JIM: As long as the players keep possession of the ball.
EDGARAS: Yes, well we have another saying, “to run is easy, and you can run behind the bus as well.” No, soccer is about playing with the ball, not just running like you are without your head.
JIM: I don’t know if you have seen any college games here but that is what you see, 22 people running around, occasionally touching the ball.
EDGARAS: Really, well in Europe while you run a lot when you see those types of players, well we never run in the rain because we save the energy, we keep energy, we run when we need to run. Here, OK, if you have good pulmonary conditioning you can run but nobody is able to run for ninety minutes, there comes a moment when you just say, “I’m done, my time is up…”
JIM: Well, the college coaches think their players can run for ninety minutes, that is the problem with the game at that level.
EDGARAS: That’s the difference. That’s where we see the difference there.
JIM: You grew up in a basketball playing country, and you are tall and the hardest thing in soccer is keeping your balance while trying to maintain possession of the ball and do something with it, and for a tall player that is often thought of as being even more difficult. How did you develop that ability? Say someone like Maradona had a very low center of gravity, he is very short and compact, his center of gravity must be down around his ankles somewhere, how did you work with that as you grew up, being a tall player?
EDGARAS: Well, when you are young, 16 years old, you accelerate quickly, you are tall but you don’t have weight, you don’t have the strength, then it is a problem, but with age it will come to any player, it doesn’t matter (what) size you are. And, of course, you have to train and I was working hard, you know, I never had problems with coordination or balance; probably it is because of everyday training, exercises. If you have no balance you cannot go any higher (in the game).
JIM: In English there is a term, “scowl,” which means a glare, a hard look. You have this particular scowl or look towards the referees after you have suffered a clear foul but gotten no call. If you were sitting down with the MLS referees committee, let’s say, what would you suggest to them about the way that they seem to see the game? Are there any suggestions that you would have, not criticisms as such but suggestions?
EDGARAS: I think it would not be very clever to go on (about) that because I don’t want to talk about the referees or about the decisions they make towards our team sometimes, in the two last games we get two red cards and I wouldn’t agree 100% on that but, OK, they try to do a hard job and I hope that people just make mistakes, that’s human because everybody fails and I don’t want to criticize them and say that they are bad or good, they are trying to do a job and sometimes we don’t agree, sorry for that, we have to understand this as well because we are on the field, in the heat of a game and suddenly you get the wrong call and you think it’s a foul, or (it isn’t given), or they send you off, you never know the reaction that you will have at the moment. That is the problem, so sorry for that look…
JIM: No, no need to apologize, it is a wonderful look, my point is that in most sports that involve ball possession the referees give the skilled players a certain amount of freedom, perhaps a space of a few feet around them where defenders are not permitted to blindside them or kick them, it seems that here in MLS the skilled players are not protected.
EDGARAS: Well, yes, I would agree with you.