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Advice Regarding a Professional Soccer Career
Submitted to the Clearwater Chargers By: Dan Segal, Executive Vice President, WMG*. May, 2010

In terms of numerical odds, even a player that has advanced so far is a very long-shot to make a living playing pro.  There are dozens of top clubs throughout the United States – close to 80 in the US Soccer Development Academy and many more besides -- each with a full roster of talented players.  Thus, there are literally thousands of youth stars each year. 

 

Yet, in the top professional league in the US, there are currently sixteen teams with a maximum roster of twenty-six players.  That means a maximum of 416 total players on MLS rosters.  MLS rosters include dozens of international players from all over the world, and many long-time professional veterans.  Hence, each team adds at most a small handful of first-time pros each year.  To fill the handful of spots, MLS can choose from among players ranging from Academy standouts in their early teens to collegiate stars in their early twenties.  Most players never get a serious look.  Even for those who go so far as to be invited to the MLS Combine – an annual invite-only camp for elite players selected for review by MLS coaches and general managers – they will arrive only to be advised by representatives of the MLS Players Union that a large majority of them will have to be looking for a job doing something else. 

 

For the fraction of those who make it, neither riches nor job security likely awaits.  Most rookies join the league at minimum salary on non-guaranteed contracts, and many do not survive on the roster for a full season.   The most recent MLS collective bargaining agreement brought improvements for players in terms of guaranteed contracts and compensation.  However, even with these, in MLS, a young player who is not part of the Generation Adidas program will very rarely be given a guaranteed contract until reaching twenty-four years of age and three years of MLS service.  Thus, up until July 1st each year, a player can be released without notice with one month’s severance pay, abruptly putting the player out of work.  Most such players make at or near the minimum salary of $40,000 or the “reserve player” minimum of $31,500.  Such a salary in a major city does not go a long way, and certainly does not provide much of a cushion in the event of abrupt termination.

 

Division two professional soccer in the United States provides some additional jobs, but those jobs generally provide even less security and compensation.  Historically, many Division two franchises have struggled financially, sometimes going out of business.  Most players receive a very modest monthly salary that often is only paid for the portion of the year during which the club is playing games.  Hence, many such players must work additional jobs to make ends meet.

 

European soccer presents a different pathway to a potential professional career, yet the challenges are similarly daunting.  Even before consideration of on-field ability, consideration of an American player by a European club must navigate a sea of legal and regulatory issues.  Every nation has its own law regarding immigration of foreign nationals.  In addition, many leagues have limitations regarding recruitment of foreign players, and FIFA (the international governing body of soccer) imposes further restrictions and particularly limits international movement of young players.   Far too often, I hear stories of young players who make the mistake of investing their time, energy, money and hopes on international tryouts that are doomed from the start due to legal and regulatory issues that are not fully understood. 

 

Young players seeking to start a career in Europe must also understand that it is exceedingly rare that a contract will be offered without a successful tryout, no matter the player’s prior accomplishments.  This adds to the difficulty in a number of ways. 

 

First, it is very often difficult for an American player to know in advance what they are getting into.  European clubs are generally complex organizations with numerous staff members and “teams” ranging from the professional squad to youth affiliates.  Only a few staff members will actually be relevant to a decision to offer an aspiring trialist a spot with the club.  It may not be difficult to obtain a training stint with a club, but that does not necessarily translate to a true tryout.  If your goal is a spot with the club, be careful before you go to make sure that you understand the dynamics at the club.  If, as is usually the case, you are obtaining these facts from some “middleman”, make sure that you check out whether that person is reputable.  Unfortunately, there are many “scouts,” agents, or aspiring deal-makers who either themselves do not understand what they are doing, or who sadly are willing to mislead.  Also, understand that you will in most cases be responsible for all or most of the cost of a trial and that you must be very careful otherwise if you hope to maintain NCAA eligibility.

 

A true trial will generally challenge an American to show a club that he is “better than what they have.”  No club is likely to recruit over a local player who has grown up with the club and take on all the extra risks involved in a foreign player unless it sees a clear upgrade. 

 

As with MLS, an “offer” will generally not translate to immediate fame and fortune.  Most initial offers to young players include little more than room and board, some pocket spending money, and a spot on a junior or reserve team.  A lengthy stay is not guaranteed.  Usually a club will have an “up or out” assessment after a year or two.  A player will need to perform on the field and mostly likely adjust to significant cultural and language differences off the field in order to succeed.  There is typically very little “emotional” support, and in some cases outright animosity from local players competing for an ultimate spot on the professional team.  Only with successful promotion will the player receive a longer contract and a true salary.

 

None of the above is meant to discourage the aspiring professional player.  It is great to have dreams, and the prospect of making a living playing a game that you love is a wonderful dream.  However, it is important to be educated and to be smart.  A few tips meant to help in that regard:

 

·         Pursue your dream, but pay attention to academics and other off-the-field responsibilities, too.  Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.  No matter how good a soccer player you are, the odds are that sooner or later you will have to make a living doing something other than playing. 

·         Take great care before crossing the line to becoming a “professional” and surrendering NCAA eligibility.  Unfortunately, the NCAA rules are not very compatible with the international system of professional soccer.  Many actions – e.g., permitting a club to pay for airfare for a trial,  accepting a one-year developmental contract for minimal pay, interactions with a non-attorney agent, etc. – that are standard for a young player in the international soccer system may nevertheless close the door on collegiate possibilities while by no means assuring professional success.  It is a shame that the NCAA creates such major consequences for actions that are in reality simply a testing of professional waters, but, given this reality, “crossing the line” is a huge decision that must be carefully considered.

·         If your goal is MLS, far and away the most safe and lucrative manner of entry is the Generation Adidas program.  Each year, MLS signs roughly ten college underclassmen and/or high school boys to contracts that are multi-year, guaranteed, and, by the MLS scale, well-paid.  The process by which players are selected for such contracts is weighted heavily toward performance with US National teams or top college programs.  The only major down-side to such contracts is that they are unavailable to college seniors.

·         MLS is currently undergoing significant change as the teams attempt to establish “Academy” teams, and this is something an aspiring professional player should watch carefully.  At present, MLS Academies are not like European Academies in which players train five to six times a week and live, train and go to school in a residential setting.  Yet they have become a point of emphasis and are meant to supply “home grown players” to the professional team.  Current plans involve each MLS team signing a half dozen or so such players to reserve contracts worth between $30,000 and $40,000 per year—a significant number of players and a major new route to pro soccer.  Yet players considering joining MLS Academies must be careful.  Most players will not be offered a contract.  MLS teams are given “exclusive MLS rights” to their Academy players, and thus a player who joins an MLS Academy team is restricted from joining any other MLS club and contractual bargaining leverage is significantly decreased.  Moreover, the MLS Academy teams are all new and they are not all equally well-developed, nor are all of them as strong as some of the non-MLS Academy programs.  Thus, before joining an MLS Academy team, make sure you understand the pros and cons and the team’s plans with regard to your particular circumstances.

·         US youth National Teams are a great means of attracting international interest.  As noted above, this rarely leads to offers without trials; however, national team participation can open many doors.  However, note that in recent years many players and parents have found that local programs can be equal to or better than the residency program for the U17 national team when all factors are balanced.

·         If your goal is European soccer, note that the concept of a “young player” in Europe is very different than in the United States.  By the time a player goes to college in America, he has reached an age at which he is generally too old to enter European soccer at anything other than a first team or high reserve team level, and it is extremely difficult to convince a European club to take such a player with no pro experience and without the European training given at younger ages in preparation for professional soccer.  Yet, as discussed earlier, to go to a European club at a younger age typically involves giving up college possibilities in return for little to no money or guarantee of success.

·         Putting aside the handful of players who do well enough to walk straight into a professional contract in Europe, the best alternative pathways are probably to either (a) go over as an early teenager to study and live and play as an amateur and see where this takes you (but this involves a major life-changing choice for most people) or (b) to make a calculated decision to go over in lieu of college on a development contract for a year or two, having a back-up plan if no full professional contract is offered.

·         Finally, I strongly advise that players and their families receive good, competent, experienced advice.  While the NCAA places limitations upon speaking with agents, players are permitted to consult with an “attorney advisor” for assistance in assessing the professional landscape.  For any aspiring professional player, the choices are difficult and complex and the landscape is far from clear, but the decisions to be made are of great importance. 

   

 

 

*Wasserman Media Group is a global sports and entertainment company with leadership positions in athlete representation, global property sales, action sports, and corporate and property consulting. Wasserman’s soccer practice is considered the most prominent in the sport, handling more than 250 players such as Americans Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan and international football stars including Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen. In addition, Wasserman has represented many naming rights and sponsorship relationships including the historic $180 million deal to name the Emirates Stadium in London, home of the famed Arsenal Football Club. Wasserman Media Group also serves corporate clients such as American Express, Castrol, Procter & Gamble and T-Mobile.  Casey Wasserman, Chairman and CEO of WMG, serves on the Board of Directors for the USA Bid Committee in its effort to bring the FIFA World Cup™ to the United States in 2018 or 2022.

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