MLS has operated as a single entity business from Day One. The model under which the league controls all player contracts is one which I’m sure many clubs around the world would love to have in an effort to keep player salaries under control. MLS has that luxury, and it has helped grow the sport in this country.
However, with the success of soccer-specific stadiums, increased television coverage, expansion into soccer-centric markets and an influx of foreign stars, leverage this spring finally swung in the favor of players to gain further rights. On March 19, 2010 -- just a week before a player strike was set to begin -- MLS and the Players Union agreed on a new five-year collective bargaining agreement. Now, just nine months later, we are set to see the fruits of that new CBA in a big way -- the first Re-Entry Draft in MLS history.
Last Friday, the league released a list of 35 players who either had their option declined or whom are now out of contract.
The process of picking up or declining contract options is not new. What is new is something the players have not had before: I like to call it "protection via a sense of urgency," and it's a direct result of the Re-Entry Draft. With the draft just two days away (it's scheduled to take place Wednesday, December 8 at 1 p.m. CT), I wanted to take a look at how this mechanism provides the answer to one of the CBA negotiating process' biggest questions -- and you need look no further than FC Dallas' very own Kevin Hartman to see why the new process came about.
At the end of the 2009 season, Kevin Hartman did not have his contract extended with the Kansas City Wizards (now known as Sporting KC). He surely knew this before December 1, 2009, but it became official on that date. If the Re-Entry Draft had been in place that season, Hartman would have been available to 15 MLS clubs at his option salary, or he could have negotiated a new deal with the club that selected him. The draft, then, would have created a sense of urgency for a club to sign Hartman, thereby giving him (and other players in a similar situation) protection from dreaded contract limbo.
Unfortunately for Hartman, there was no Re-Entry Draft.
Without it, Hartman sat idle for months until Kansas City found an offer that made sense to them. With no intent to retain Hartman, KC held his rights. Ultimately, that gave them the power to decide when and where Hartman could go -- meaning that the veteran goalkeeper who, based on his 2010 performance, clearly had good years in front of him, had completely lost leverage.
Now that the Re-Entry Draft is in place, situations like Hartman's are a thing of the past and there is an “open market” within the confine of the MLS single entity structure that benefits both club and player.
With unprecedented accountability to the on-field product, clubs in this new scenario must be able to react and make split-second decisions by which the long term vision of the club may be maintained. As a consequence, the Re-Entry Draft affords teams the flexibility to renegotiate in order to find salary cap relief or pursue a prospect in the MLS open market if such terms cannot be reached.
At the end of the 2009 season Kevin Hartman was a man without a team, and FC Dallas was able to secure him -- in my mind making it the offseason acquisition of the year. Is there a similar pickup in FC Dallas’ future? I took my best shot at projecting who could be selected by the Western Conference Champions in Wednesday’s Re-Entry Draft*, in order of least to most likely.
*NOTE: FC Dallas has the 15th overall pick in Wednesday's first round of the Re-Entry Draft.
Juan Pablo Angel
The talented Designated Player for the New York Red Bulls has had his option declined. FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman has spoken publicly about the former River Plate and Aston Villa striker’s quality. He would fit very well as the lone target man in Hyndman’s formation. Angel has slowed through the last season, but his nose for goal and ability to bring others into the attack is amongst the best in MLS. The downside? His high wage makes him least likely on this list.
Not only does the striker possess the athleticism the FCD manager covets, but he has played a role with some good Houston Dynamo teams. His chance in Europe didn’t play out like the former Crew and Dynamo man had expected, but he is a guy that could get you a handful of goals annually. His cap number wouldn’t put a dent on the books as much as MLS’ second all-time leading goal-scorer Jeff Cunningham, whose option was declined last week. FCD is light at the forward position, and Ngwenya could provide depth and goals at the right price.
With the departure of Dax McCarty in central midfield, Stephenson could add more bite to the FC Dallas midfield. The Jamaican international has mobility to get up and down the field and could offer FCD captain Daniel Hernandez a more natural defensive-minded player to work alongside. Stephenson does have the ability to get forward, and his size is surely an asset. I’m sure that's an even more highly-valued benefit considering the departure of Atiba Harris to Vancouver in the expansion draft. Assuming he isn’t already taken (FC Dallas has the 15th pick) Stephenson's moderate salary could make him FC Dallas’ pick.