In the wake of the United States Men's National Team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, many in the US soccer community are asking thoughtful and challenging questions regarding the state of our game. And some are demanding a change in leadership within the United States Soccer Federation. Sunil Gulati has been President for 12 years and is up for re-election this February.
Our sport has seen tremendous growth and investment in the last 20 years, so we do not want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but this failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986 should be a wake up call to USSF leadership and to those of us involved in the game to assess what we are doing right and scrutinize and question what we are doing wrong as a soccer nation. While this is an expansive conversation which includes everything from coaching education, the role of college soccer, scouting and player identification, pay to play, investment in a national training center, and promotion/relegation; I would like to focus USSF leadership and the candidates for USSF President on the issue of FIFA Training Compensation and Solidarity payments which the USSF does not enforce like the rest of the footballing world.
USSF must find a way to implement FIFA Training Compensation and Solidarity payments to incentivize youth and amateur clubs to scout and develop talent from underserved communities and to be financially rewarded for the players they develop into professionals. Within the current landscape, their is no financial incentive for the thousands of youth clubs to scout out and identify players not in the system or to aggressively market to communities that cannot afford to participate in big time youth travel soccer. Some clubs offer scholarships, and that is to be lauded, but with training compensation and solidarity in place there would be financial incentive to go out and scout underserved communities.
There are some potential antitrust issues in play related to a consent decree that US Soccer entered into with the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts more than 15 years ago as part of the Fraser v. MLS litigation (lawsuit about MLS's single entity structure and lack of free agency where USSF was also a party).
The critical element for the next USSF President to move forward with FIFA Training Compensation and Solidarity is to get the Major League Soccer Players Union (MLSPU) onboard as they are the ones who will bring an antitrust action against US Soccer (USSF) and MLS, if USSF begins enforcing FIFA Training and Solidarity Payments. The MLSPU's stance is likely that it is a restraint on trade and takes from their member's paychecks. The next USSF President will also need to get MLS on board. While MLS clubs with academies would benefit from training compensation (many MLS clubs have made substantial investment in academies which has been a great development for the sport), the implementation and enforcement of Training Compensation and Solidarity would likely increase the cost of doing business for MLS in having to make training compensation and solidarity payments out to non MLS academy youth clubs who played a role in developing a player. In addition to increasing the cost of doing business, given MLSPU's likely position, MLS likely views the implementation of Training Compensation and Solidarity not only as an additional expense but as a thorny labor issue that potentially would need to be addressed in collective bargaining.
MLS has made great strides as has the MLSPU in advocating for players. I support both the league and the MLSPU. I remember when MLS was on fragile footing in the early 2000's after the Fraser litigation when two teams were contracted and when Uncle Phil Anshutz owned/operated six of the then ten teams in the league (Lamar Hunt owned three and Kraft owned one). I also remember a time when there was no players union, when reserve player salaries were as low as $16,000 a year, when players did not have rights to their likeness or image, and when there was no form of free agency within MLS.
MLS now has 22 teams, many investors, state of the art soccer stadiums, TV contracts, and has developed an impressive soccer supporters culture in markets like Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, Orlando and others. On the player side, the union has improved a whole host of terms and conditions for player employment and are currently in the 3rd CBA agreement with the league (2015 - 2019). Player wages have gone up, team salary caps have gone up, guaranteed contracts for certain players, limited free agency has been obtained, improvements to retirement contributions from the league, and increases for player appearance fees and per diems.
MLS has a stated desire to be a top 5 league in the world. Well if that is the case, then it time to take the training wheels off and join the rest of the top leagues in the world in paying training compensation and solidarity payments.
The Yedlin - Spurs - Crossfire youth club solidarity compensation dispute (USMNT player Deandre Yedlin's youth club wants their solidarity payment from when the Seattle Sounders of MLS transferred Yedlin to Tottenham Hotspurs of the EPL for approximately $3 million) still has legs as it is currently on the docket of the FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber (DRC). If Crossfire prevails, will USSF take action to enforce the payments or will the Federation cower to MLS and the MLSPU under the threat of an antitrust lawsuit based on a 15 year old and factually distinguishable consent decree? The next USSF President will have an opportunity to take this head on. The next USSF President must persuade MLS and the MLSPU that implementing Training Compensation and Solidarity is in the best interest of all in growing the game in helping us to cast a wider net for identifying talent that in turn will help improve and grow both our professional leagues and our national teams.
Along with being Commissioner of the Maryland Major Soccer League, I am a delegate with the US Adult Soccer Association (USASA) and US Soccer Federation and will be pressing all candidates running for USSF President on the issue of Training Compensation and Solidarity Payments starting next week at USASA's Mid-Year Meeting where candidates for USSF President will be presenting.
If any in the soccer community have thoughts, ideas, or suggestions that you want me to raise to leadership, please reach out and let me know.
Commissioner, Maryland Major Soccer League
Secretary, Maryland State Soccer Association
Delegate, United States Adult Soccer Association
Delegate, United States Soccer Federation