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Kenny Cooper Sr: Speaking the Truth

24soccer.1.190 Kenny Cooper Sr: Speaking the Truth

Kenny Cooper Sr., a player I watched when growing up in the NASL has always been blunt. Cooper spoke about his son’s recent transfer to Brent Latham, one of the top football correspondents that cover the American game.

Here were some of Cooper’s comments from the Yanks Abroad story and my reaction:

“The value of a player as a young American is not even close to what it should be,” says Cooper, Sr. of the pay scale in MLS. “It’s sad when people from other countries see your talent and reward you, and pay you what you’re worth, as opposed to being an American player who’s told we can’t pay you because this other player makes less.”

I’ve said this for years: MLS priorities at some point shifted from being a developmental league that maximized potential American talent to being concerned about marketing over the hill foreign stars. Some commentators have disagreed vociferously with me about this subject, but my opinion is if middle tier American players like Brian West, Hunter Freeman and Clarence Goodson feel they must move overseas to second tier European leagues to get paid a fare wage on the open market, MLS is failing.

“I still have difficulty understanding in this league, as I expressed to the commissioner in Toronto last July, I can’t understand when you have young American players who can play anywhere in the world and they’re somewhat punished because they’re Americans,” he says. “As someone who’s been in the league and the country as a coach, and the system for 38 years, I think that this league at times would rather reward a proven failure than unlimited potential.”

Again another point I have routinely made: In any other domestic league, a national team starting striker like Brian Ching or a consistent squad player like Steve Ralston would be compensated in a comparable fashion to relatively unaccomplished foreign players who have been bought by the league. Ralston, for instance, has been in this league from the beginning: in 1996 he helped lead Tampa Bay to the Supporters Shield (which did not exist at the time) and later led New England to four MLS Cup appearances. 14 seasons, and yet his wage is not comparable to several foreign players, who have never been capped internationally yet have signed in MLS.

“They’ve done a lot of things right – soccer specific stadiums, great ownership – but there shouldn’t be a ceiling put on great American players,” says Cooper. “Then they bring in a foreign player and they say ‘we’ll make him the DP, the highest paid player,’ and there’s no reward for a person who works hard and builds up the club.”

I agree on the stadiums but perhaps not on the ownership unless we are talking Maple Leaf Sports, Red Bull and Seattle ’s ownership group. The original investors in this league have done a poor job of marketing the league beyond a small niche group of fans and have not invested in player development the way for example Red Bull has over the past few years

Regarding the foreign player DP spots, I continue to be perplexed by a system where you are penalized for developing talent and making players successful. You cannot resign your own players and get no cap exemption if a player is home grown. The Larry Bird rule in the NBA was probably needed in MLS more than the Beckham rule.

I have spoken to many a player in the last few years that have opted to play in USL over MLS when offered extensions in MLS because of the salary cap- in other words they were offered 35k in MLS, even though the team wanted them to stay, while being offered  let’s say 50k and living expenses in USL. These obviously aren’t your Kenny Cooper type players but still are valuable guys that fill out a squad and have a veteran savvy.

Before 1860 Munich moved in, Cooper was close to a deal to move back to England with Championship club Bristol City, but that accord apparently fell apart over MLS’ insistence that the player sign over his right to ten percent of the transfer fee, a percentage guaranteed by FIFA bylaws. A deal that would have sent Cooper to Norwegian side Rosenberg last summer also fell apart over Cooper’s refusal to sign over his portion of the fee.

MLS’ stinginess over players’ share of transfer fees was not directed solely at Cooper, it turns out. Nearly every player to leave MLS, with the exception of Brad Guzan, has reportedly been convinced to give up their portion of the fee.

“You can call it business or whatever you want, but what I call it is incorrect,” the elder Cooper says of the practice. “Every player in the world gets ten percent, so why would you stop a young player from getting his, when you’re making millions? Why would Kenny give up $500,000 when the league’s making five million? Nowhere else in the world does that happen.”

This is just mind boggling and something FIFA may be forced to deal with. MLS’ insistence that players, many of which have not been fairly compensated for years return their portion of the transfer fee to the league they are leaving is simply preposterous. Moreover, in no other part of the world does the single entity structure exist where the league actually cashes in to this extent on a player sale- another detriment to specific clubs developing their talent.

It’s no wonder so many college kids opt to stick out an extra year in the PDL where they can freely move to Europe and obtain trials abroad. Once you sign in MLS, you lose much of your ability to test the market or even move abroad if a foreign club wants to sign you. Just ask Taylor Twellman or Shalrie Joseph.

I cannot express my anger about this strongly enough. MLS ownership and management do not value young American players enough to pay them a decent wage and then try and rob them on their way out of the league as they seek greener pastures abroad. Is MLS still in constant survival mode that they must do this?

“Kenny is not the finished product, he’s got a long way to go,” the coach says. “He’s 24, he’s not going to come into his best as a striker until he’s 27. Kenny has recognized that if he wants to develop his career and become a permanent fixture in the national team, he needs to play in Europe. Coach Bradley’s mentality is that if you guys need to get better you need to play in Europe. That’s how we came to this decision.

Here is the answer for those that are concerned that Bob Bradley calls the very guys in when in Europe that he ignores when they are in MLS. Again, Bradley has plenty of experience viewing both European Football and MLS (as well as Mexico through his assistant Mike Sorber) to make educated and responsible decisions on these matters. As Bradley’s tenure has played out, his confidence in his European based players has been rewarded with remarkable results including a win over Spain, while largely MLS based teams have struggled, most recently being thrashed 5-0 by Mexico.

“We’re not bitter, not at all, but I feel a responsibility as someone who’s seen the process at work. They’ve got to understand, you don’t do business that way,” said Cooper, reiterating that he anticipates his son returning to MLS later in his career. “Hopefully by then they pay Americans what they’re truly worth.”

This is another reason why the players association MUST be given deference by the league’s management, with regards to the ongoing CBA negotiation. The CBA that kicks in for 2009 could be the most critical moment in MLS history.

In summary, we all want MLS to be successful and better our nation’s football culture. But currently, the league is less interested in developing American talent, and working to ensure a fair market wage to home grown players than it is in signing and marketing over the hill foreign stars. While this may be a recipe for financial survival, it also could eventually leads to disastrous results for our national team and football culture.

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About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the EPL Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the book Blue With Envy about Manchester City FC.
View all posts by Kartik Krishnaiyer →

21 Responses to Kenny Cooper Sr: Speaking the Truth

  1. todd says:

    just tell one novice/green soccer fan that watched the gold cup that Stuart Holden is making 35k this season and watch their reaction.

    Cooper Sr. (and you) have forgotten to mention Generation Adidas contracts though. One look at the wiki page on whose gotten that, and you have to admit that there is certainly one decent path towards developing american talent and paying them properly.

  2. Fan says:

    Ralston, you might have a point, but Ching is paid pretty well – $242K. Here are the foreign players making more than him:

    Angel
    Beckham
    Blanco
    Fred
    DeRo
    Emilio
    Ferreira
    Gomez
    Guevara
    Huckerby
    Joseph
    Ljungberg
    Moreno
    Robinson
    Schelloto
    Van den bergh
    Vitti

    Maybe a few who don’t belong, but Ching was a poor example, highlighting your inability to separate emotion and actually do the necessary research to be taken seriously.

    And how many kids have stuck around in the PDL. Most guys who go over go right after school is out or after their draft position is determined. Again, do some research and the few cogent points in your discussion might make more sense.

  3. Fan- I’m talking about the summer after they graduate rather then entering the January draft- this has happened with several guys, most recently Arnoux (who actually left Wake early but did not enter the draft in Jan)

    Some decent points otherwise- what do you think about Cooper’s other points though?

    Some of the names you mention like Vitti, Ferreira, Gomez, Fred,and
    Emilio have never been capped before for their nations, yet they make more than our starting forward for the national team in our league.

  4. dm says:

    hard to take the MLS head office seriously when they flat out refuse to sell players to european clubs, as happened with shalrie joseph and celtic and eddie johnson with benfica (although johnson didn’t want to go to benfica, mls should have sold him for the 5million on offer).

    i have come to enjoy watching mls, but it seems that “The Soccer Don,” as he calls himself, has an overvalued estimation of the quality of his league. when a team consisting of your entire league’s best players has trouble beating a middling EPL team (west ham last year, for example) you can’t really hold big european clubs for ransom…

    and he and alexi lalas and everyone else needs to stop with this “the mls all-star game shows that MLS can compete with the rest of the world” crap. it does no such thing.

    good for kenny cooper. hope it works better for him than 1860 did for wolff.

  5. Adam Edg says:

    I was not aware that MLS forced players to give up their legal share of the transfer fees. It is bad enough that individual teams get screwed when a player goes to Europe, but it is unforgivable that the league does that to the players.
    While I appreciate Blanco, Ljungberg, Beckham, etc being in the league, I do think it is wrong that their acquisition is a higher priority than retaining homegrown talent. As much as I personally dislike LandyCakes, the fact that a bonafide US star has to play second fiddle to an aging Euro star on an American club is BS.
    The league should use it DP spots to keep players like Cooper in MLS. Instead they are developing the talent and cashing in when they go overseas. Fans would prefer to cheer for local – or at least American – players. That is how you build bonds…
    Farn – I would no longer consider DeRo “foreign” since he is Canadian and plays for Toronto..

  6. DK says:

    It doesn’t have any affect on the national team as long as we keep doing what we’re going: getting young players with Nats potential to get the heck away from MLS.

  7. Rex says:

    Maybe I am confused here, a home grown American play can be signed as a DP, but nobody does? Is that correct?

  8. Ryan says:

    It’s such a chicken and the egg problem. Which comes first: a league that can sustain itself or salaries that match up with other international leagues?

    In your last paragraph you say:
    “In summary, we all want MLS to be successful and better our nation’s football culture. But currently, the league is less interested in developing American talent, and working to ensure a fair market wage to home grown players than it is in signing and marketing over the hill foreign stars. While this may be a recipe for financial survival, it also could eventually leads to disastrous results for our national team and football culture.”

    I’m surprised that you are able to flip back and forth so quickly between “we need this to be successful as a country” and “but it may destroy the league.” If the worst happens and MLS raises salaries too much, and does not use the money wisely to sign different players, instead just inflating the salaries of current players then what? What happens to football culture and national team development in America when there is no national professional league, which not only stunts our ability to grow players but also disqualifies us from hosting the World Cup?

    Of course we want to see people get paid more so that decent players can fill out the rosters of MLS clubs rather than start on USL clubs, so that developmental players can actually afford to live, and so that we can keep more homegrown talent. Of course teams should able to sign more of the talent they produce in their youth systems, and keep current players more easily. And of course the fact that MLS tries to force players to hand over their percentage of the signing fee is despicable (although I bet if more players held out and then refused transfer sales until their contract was up and they could leave for free this would disappear).

    But I think you downplay the disastrous consequences of moving too far in the other direction.

    • Ryan, you make fair points but let me state I have never been one to want 8 foreign players per team. I was against that from the get go (you can check the archives of this site) and believe you should have a maximum of 3-4 foreign players. That saves you the money for guys like Vitti and Fred on Fan’s list. It’s plain insulting that Vitti makes more money than Brian Ching. Just flat out insulting.

      Expansion has forced the number of foreign players to go up- assuming we cap teams at 20, we can gradually reduce the foreign player spots, and make sure teams do proper scouting before burning a foreign player slot on someone hardly good enough to start.

      To think, Laurent Robert made more money than Ching and Cooper combined last year is pretty telling. Francisco Carracio almost made as much as Steve Ralston. Again, very telling.

      Mortgaging MLS’ financial future is not an option, I agree. But not paying Americans a competitive wage and taking some care to develop American players is not an option either. Why must Red Bull, Chivas and the Fire enter their youth teams and development teams in USL- why isn’t MLS doing what they need to do to develop our young players? I applaud those organizations. Peter Wilt had the vision and foresight to enter Chicago into the PDL and that organization has done so much good for American soccer- it’s no coincidence a greater percentage of our national team was developed by the Fire than any other club, including our coach.

      But other MLS teams now follow a strict American franchise model more because of the rules of the league which reward failure and penalize success and good player development. That has to change for the good of the game.

  9. Jose says:

    Talk about eye-opening. I had no idea that mls players were paid so little. Do the guys on the national team at least get something extra for that? Also, I agree that it’s unconscionable for the league to steal the players’ share of whatever transfer fee they’ve earned. That is just so wrong.

  10. Jack says:

    Well I think the owners and commissioner of MLS know what they are doing. It is in their best interest to make the league successful and I believe they know better how to do this than any players or media folks do.

  11. quakesin2knever says:

    “Hopefully by then they pay Americans what they’re truly worth.”

    They are paid what they are worth right now. They are being paid what the market demand is. Last I checked, games where Blanco or Beckham were playing sold way more tickets and had way better ratings than games Kenny Cooper was playing in.

    “While this may be a recipe for financial survival”

    I think you just answered your whole post right there with that last comment. This is all about financial survival. American players will get paid more when the league starts making more money.

    For the most part our players are a stoic bunch. Maybe we need a couple of Terrell Owens type players to spice things up. Like this whole David Beckham stuff is getting MLS in the news a lot. No such thing as bad publicity.

  12. bill says:

    Katrik,

    I totally agree with you on this one but i have one question. It’s obvious to me that we can’t raise the cap for one reason; cashflow. I want the league to pay these guys what they are worth as badly as you do but how? MLS is still a todler crapping it’s pants in the sandbox compared to most leagues in this world. Unfortunately the league is still in the crawling stage and just can’t operate with increased wage expenses. How do you pay a guy even 200k at Dallas when your franchise is drawing less than 10k people to each game? These stadiums are great and are critical to the league’s growth but the notes associated with them are undoubtedly the first priority of the league and teams’ front offices. Only when the stadiums are close to full consistantly will we see an overhaul in player compensation. It jut boils down to simple dollars and cents. Now, if you could find out how much the league pockets from these friendlies with super clubs and also the return in the world football challenge that would be interesting. To me, that is where the league will make up for lack of attendance while also promoting the game at the same time.

    • Bill- Good question. I think alot of money stays in SUM from the Mexican and Barca friendlies and also Interliga. Remember, nobody actually owns a team but 1/15th of the league and they get a piece of that. As far as Dallas, they are actually the most profitable team other than LA, believe it or not. They’ve kept their costs down and they rent out PHP for HS Football all the time making tons of money off what is the biggest sport in Texas.

  13. Adam Edg says:

    I am also curious about the friendlies against international clubs. These seem like giant money makers. Surely the participating teams get some of that, right? Then again, this is MLS where the league managment feels they are entitled to every dime. I understand that the league wants to keep itself viable, but they will never truly succeed if clubs and owners are hampered by such a communist approach. Why should Seattle, Houston, and LA be held back by Columbus, Salt Lake, etc? I mean, I am all for keeping teams competitive, but this is the one sport that we really face international competition (I guess hockey too to some extent with KHL). Shouldn’t the league be letting the big clubs with drawing power keep more of their outside money so that they can compete more effectively on the international stage?
    Guess that is why the NPSL used to use “A league run by teams instead of teams run by a league” as its tagline…

  14. gmonsoon43 says:

    Could players take legal action against the league for its transfer policy? It just seems that if it is a FIFA mandate that a player gets 10% and the league holds players ransom(saying you can’t transfer unless you give back your 10%) it seems they would have a case. Just a question for those with more legal knowledge than myself.

    Also, Cooper’s transfer makes the MLS look really bad. First it made very public knowledge of the 10% issue. The second part that made the MLS look bad is how the news came out about how Cooper had to ask ManU to be let go for free because the MLS refused to pay a transfer fee for him.

  15. Jack(Vegas) says:

    This post only seems to confirm that MLS is primarily concerned with short term profits and it will be interesting when all of the unintended consequences actually hurt the league more than the intended consequences help. It will be interesting to see how the next CBA negotiations go because that will decide if MLS takes a step backward and forward.

  16. ERT 145 says:

    MLS is a total joke. It went from having so much potential to help American soccer to a league that looks down on American players and is more concerned about creating a perception about its superiority rather than actually helping grow the game.

    It’s teams and players are exploited to make money in meaningless friendlies and the rules resemble the NFL more than any soccer league abroad. MLS has better players but I personally prefer the different tiers of USL, starting with Super Y on up for local entertainment while I watch European football on TV for big time entertainment.

    I hope MLS enjoys those .1 and .2 ratings. That’s what a big league is about, isn’t it?

  17. WonsanUnited says:

    MLS really needs to look at the J-League as a model for their own success. J-League clubs can only have 5 foreign players, with at least one of them having to be from the AFC. The J-League has developed so much great talent over the past decade or so. Younger players don’t skip going to the J-League to play in Europe like they do here because they can make a decent wage (also cultural differences). Average attendance is close to 20,000 in Japan and they don’t even have any big name foreign stars.

  18. Marc says:

    J-League used a Brazilian model. Garber is arrogant enough to think he has all the answers and even using USL as a substructure is beneath him. Player development sucks in MLS. The only Americans that truly develop to their potential either do so in college or the PDL or simply get out of the league in time.

    As far as the 10% fee, MLS thrives on a complicit soccer press whose sold a bill of goods that if they attack MLS, soccer will fail and agents who mislead their clients essentially committing malpractice. Good for Guzan and Cooper- they must have good agents and smart parents.

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