Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Don't show 'em the money!

It appears that the New England Revolution has taken a bit of a different approach toward signing the majority of their rookies this MLS preseason.

Instead of procuring their services in writing early in preseason training, the club bypassed the entire process and simply awarded each frosh the title of "trialist".

This cutting edge approach has taken has turned Revolution preseason training into soccer’s version of American Idol. Before a panel of judges, er, coaches (fortunately, none of them as clueless as Paula Abdul), all of the rooks, save for Generation adidas designee Rob Valentino, are literally auditioning for a roster spot this preaseaon. Cue the Fox promo.

The bulk of this year's rookies, from third rounder Matthew Britner to camp invitee Sam Brill, are in camp without a contract. They are classified as trialists. You won’t find their names listed on the team’s official roster. Thus, no paycheck will be forthcoming until each has duly impressed his handlers.

(But look at the bright side: without having to pay its rookies until absolutely necessary, this clever little ploy allows the club to save its pennies toward signing that much awaited designated player!)

To a man, this exercise in frugality is unquestionably trying. As it is, players “lucky” enough to have developmental contracts are annually out earned by the gas boy at the petrol station. As if to take the penny pinching to another level, the Revolution has avoided the entire developmental contract process and simply extended the "privilege" of a trial to its rookies. Welcome to the team, guys. Feel free to charge those late-night pizzas to your parents’ credit cards.

Last season, the club had signed nearly all of its rookies to pro contracts by the middle of the preseason, save for supplemental pick Phil Marfuggi, who lasted approximately one week with the club. The only other picks unsigned during preseason were Bryan Byrne (signed just prior to the season) and Kyle Helton (finished his semester at Duke before joining in May). But the remainder were locked, stocked and sealed by the time the club returned from Bermuda.

At the same juncture this season, everyone but Valentino is secured for the season. The Britners and Brills are all essentially practicing and playing under their own volition (i.e. for free). Sure, they get all expenses paid excursions to Bermuda, Cancun and New Orleans for preseason fare. Yet these gentlemen were selected by a professional soccer team to be professional soccer players, not preseason training fodder.

The preseason, in theory, was not intended to be a prolonged professional tryout for incoming freshman. Why is the club doing this? From a business standpoint, the club obviously saves a few extra dollars this month by not committing money to players that may or may not see the light of the MLS regular season. But it’s a rather shortsighted approach. In the long term, this decision may undermine the club’s attempts to secure cream of the crop collegiate talent (see: Michael Videira) in the future.

In fact, this is a perfect case study as to why MLS as whole needs to reassess its stance when it comes to cultivating its younger talents. The above scenario only emphasizes the comedy that is the MLS developmental player designation. To a college prospect that sees upper echelon players making six and seven figures, while he enters the league at the price of a Hyundai Sonata (or absolutely free), this has to be an extremely disheartening scenario.

Now it has come to the point where the Revolution won’t even lock its rookies into deals prior to preseason. So while the rookies grind it out on a rec-level indoor pitch, the front office officials sit back and bypass having to sign a few extra paychecks. No wonder Videira has opted to test the international market rather than meet a similar fate.

Rest assured, if the Revolution and MLS continue to conduct themselves like they’re some non-profit organization – at least to its rookies - you can bet many more college prospects will be doing some bypassing of their own.

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