DeAndre Yedlin and the Great American Paper Chase

DeAndre Yedlin is selling Xboxes, Golazo and American soccer. This must be fattening his wallet, but the real payday will come if Yedlin signs that oft-rumored big, juicy European contract. Aside from prestige or developmental reasons, should Yedlin sign overseas just to follow the money?

Currently Yedlin makes $92,000, up from $52k as a rookie. That’s a mighty healthy raise but not market value for an international soccer star of his caliber, especially after the World Cup he had. Yedlin makes more than most of us, but it is small beans in the world of professional athletes.

I’m always impressed to see how little some MLS players make. Dylan Remick makes exactly what I do as an adjunct community college instructor: $36,000 a year. He’s on TV, playing a professional sport and getting paid a wage I often complain about. That’s mindblowing. We are conditioned to see pro athletes make bills. Remick making $36k seems as surreal as a janitor taking home six figures. And yet why are janitors paid less and athletes more? Of course money is only a metaphor: the janitor is not less useful than the fullback. But this shows one of the narratives we take for granted in this country, that professional athletes should make more than most normal professions.

What if all professional sports leagues lowered their salaries across the board and found a standardized and modest pay scale? We would reject that because it is part of our culture to complain about overpaid athletic divas. Eddie Johnson played the part of an American athlete perfectly. In Mark Bowden’s book Bringing the Heat about the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles, he discovers the MEAT principle being discussed amongst the Eagles. MEAT stands for “Maximize Earnings at All Times.” Eddie Johnson was adrift after fruitless stints in Europe and Mexico, his career in tatters. Seattle made him a humble offer ($150,000+, not chump change) and he soon outperformed that contract. He made a stink and potentially ruined a locker room, but Eddie was just looking to MEAT.

Yedlin seems a great guy and is saying all the right things, for now. When it comes to paydays, MLS’s byzantine salary rules are muddying his situation. Currently Yedlin is on a Homegrown Player contract, this allows him to make more than the league minimum and his salary doesn’t count against the cap. But to command the money he could in Europe, MLS would need to break their own rules (which they love to do), or get him those mysterious “retention funds” or a DP contract. But “retention funds” are fishy and Seattle already has three deserving DPs. So shouldn’t Yedlin bolt overseas to MEAT?

MLS is a downright different league. The low salaries keep a hint of amateurism, and the sense that players are playing outta pure love, in MLS. But the salary elasticity is incredible. For example, Clint Dempsey banks $6.7 million and Remick only that $36k. No other American professional sports league has such a wide earnings gap.  Even the grand daddy of them all, the NFL, has salaries much closer. Percy Harvin, after inking his blockbuster contract to come to Seattle, will make a whooping $11 million (almost twice Dempsey’s salary) this year for the Seahawks, but the NFL league minimum is $420,000 (almost 12 times Remicks’s). MLS has created a cartel-like infrastructure, where the league owns all contracts and franchises etc., to ensure financial sustainability. But this elasticity is contributing to players looking overseas and that affects the league’s long-term goals of being a league of choice.

Disparate salaries are affecting league financial sustainability and also roster stability. Last year we lost Mauro Rosales because the cap was too tight. I am sure Seattle would’ve loved to find a way to keep Mauro, but just couldn’t under the current paradigm. Now Obafemi Martins has started to posture at press conferences for a new contract. He makes $1.6 million and was the big man on Seattle’s campus until Deuce came to town. Now he is vastly out-earned. This must affect the camaraderie in the locker room (see: Johnson, Eddie). However, it is expected that MLS will ratify a new CBA in the offseason. We expect a major increase in the salary cap. This should help smooth egos, but how will MLS and soccer in this country change as salaries begin to creep up and natural cynicism enters the sport?

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