U.S. soccer players are accustomed to being regarded as the final markdowns on the sales floor of the sport. They travel the world wearing figurative red tags, eager to be sold to someone, anyone.
It was supposed to be different this year. This summer’s World Cup had dual goals: Sell the sport to a skeptical American public and sell American players to equally skeptical European club teams. The first item has, perhaps, been accomplished, for however brief a duration. The second is still in mid-transaction. With American soccer, no sale is ever final.
“I didn’t expect 10 players off the World Cup team to sign first-division contracts in the top countries,” said Sunil Gulati, chairman of the U.S. Soccer Federation National Teams committee and the 1994 World Cup’s chief international officer.
“A lot of players on the field were already under contract, so you can’t expect the same kind of movement. In 1990, we had one player sign a contract without some kind of trial--Tab (Ramos). The other players had long tryouts and a long time on reserve teams.”
Because the United States lacks a professional soccer league of first-division caliber, U.S. players have little chance to showcase their talents. The situation puts enormous importance on the World Cup.
“It’s a showcase for yourself, but it’s more important to help the team,” defensive midfielder Mike Sorber said. “If you think individually, and think, ‘I’m going to help myself get noticed by a team,’ then you are going to bring the team down.”
A few German clubs showed an interest in Sorber before and during the World Cup, but that interest waned. Like many U.S. players, Sorber was left without a job afterward.
“Everything was vague,” he said from his home in St. Louis. “People like to talk--there’s German teams interested, English clubs. But until there’s a contract or they contact me or my agent, it’s all just talk. I don’t know what happened. I’m still here.”
It’s a familiar pattern of hopes raised then dashed. Only Ramos, who plays in Spain, and John Harkes, who plays in England, got jobs immediately after the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Eric Wynalda followed soon after with teams in Germany, but the U.S. team’s poor performance and ignoble exit after the first round was not conducive to serious offers.
Was 1994 any better? From the 22-man World Cup roster, five players have signed contracts with European clubs. However, three of them--goalkeeper Brad Friedel and midfielders Joe-Max Moore and Claudio Reyna, did not play. A fourth, Cobi Jones, was used sparingly. Starting defender Alexi Lalas is the only American player who can say the World Cup exposure got him a job.
Goalkeeper Tony Meola might argue that contention. The veteran did finally sign a professional contract--as a kicker with the New York Jets.
The marketability of American players might have increased because of the World Cup, but they are still viewed in bargain basement terms--ultra-competitive, not highly skilled, and still relatively inexpensive in a world of $20-million transfer fees.
“That view (of the clumsy American player) is changed,” Gulati said. “Tab helped change that. The fact that we tried to play in the World Cup and didn’t sit back on defense helped change that. But there’s still a let’s-look-and-see attitude.
“It’s still an issue from the club perspective. Our players have not proven themselves in a domestic league. If a club is going to make a multimillion-dollar investment, and that is based on only four (World Cup) games, they are going to be leery.”
What teams hope to find is value. They can spend little for a U.S. player, say a $200,000 transfer fee and a salary of $100,000, and hope to press coal into a diamond. The contracts of Americans still tend to be light on salary and heavy with incentive bonuses. The duration of the contracts, too, is noticeably shorter. Most newly signed players have clauses allowing them to return to the United States should the proposed Major League Soccer enterprise get off the ground next spring.
Former U.S. team general manager Bill Nuttall said that, while American players are not expensive, the team’s good showing in this summer’s World Cup enhanced their value.
“It gave a legitimacy to our players,” he said. “Lalas was a pleasant surprise (in terms of team interest), but Joe-Max Moore didn’t play a minute. We had that deal done July 4.”
Because so many of the U.S. players were under contract to the USSF, the federation negotiated most of the deals and kept 90% of the transfer fees. The federation’s approach to placing players, officials say, is to find the right match. Interest from teams in Colombia, for example, was quickly quashed, but overtures from most European teams have been greeted cordially.
By far, officials say, Lalas generated the most interest. Teams in three countries vied for his services before Lalas chose Padove in the highly competitive Italian first division.
His case illustrates the importance of the U.S. players who had gone before. If American players do well, they often put in a good word for their countrymen. The other teams courting Lalas had American connections. Coventry City in the English Premier League already had American forward Roy Wegerle, and VfL Bochum in the German Bundesliga signed Wynalda before the World Cup.
Although neither team got Lalas, Coventry did sign his teammate, Jones. Moore went to Wynalda’s former Bundesliga team, Saarbrucken. Reyna was signed by Bayer Leverkusen, Thomas Dooley’s new German team. Friedel was signed by Newcastle United, which has no other American players but was no doubt encouraged by the success of two other American goalkeepers in England--Kasey Keller at Millwall and Jurgen Sommer at Luton Town.
Thanks to the success of these Americans abroad, American soccer officials and players are no longer traveling hat in hand, Nuttall said, especially after this World Cup.
“We had more people soliciting us than us soliciting them,” he said. “You can thank Harkes, Ramos and Wynalda for the efforts they put in as pioneers to give credibility for American players. They stuck it out and showed that Americans can play.”
Even so, an American on a European soccer team is still a rarity. And, if American players are seen as inexpensive raw talent, so are Africans, who are flocking to European teams.
“Before, there were three or four (Americans at top-level clubs abroad) and now there are six or eight,” Sorber said. “Slowly but surely we are chiseling our way in. The more successful these guys are, the easier it will be for the younger guys. There are so many players in the world and so few jobs.”
The Next Step
What members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team are doing. Player: Marcelo Balboa
Comment: Interest from teams in Mexican League and Europe
Player: Mike Burns
Comment: Recovering at home from arthroscopic surgery
Player: Paul Caligiuri
Comment: Entertaining offers. Appearing in shampoo commercials. Interested in proposed Major League Soccer.
Player: Fernando Clavijo
Comment: Oldest member of team will have no trouble finding a coaching job
Player: Thomas Dooley
Team/Affiliation: Bayer Leverkusen, German Second Division
Comment: New club but looking to end career in the U.S.
Player: Brad Friedel
Team/Affiliation: Newcastle United, English Premier League
Comment: Work permit problems not sorted out
Player: John Harkes
Team/Affiliation: Derby County, English First Division
Comment: Returns to steady career
Player: Cobi Jones
Team/Affiliation: Coventry City, English Premier League
Comment: Just signed, thanks to strong recommendation from Roy Wegerle
Player: Frank Klopas
Team/Affiliation: Free agent
Comment: At home in Chicago, entertaining offers from Europe. Would like to play in MLS
Player: Cle Kooiman
Team/Affiliation: Morelia, Mexican First Division
Comment: With new team after playing one game in Cup
Player: Alexi Lalas
Team/Affiliation: Padova, Italian first division
Comment: On loan. Will be tested in the world’s most competitive league
Player: Mike Lapper
Comment: Had no World Cup playing time. Expected to sign with the L.A. Salsa
Player: Tony Meola
Team/Affiliation: New York Jets, NFL
Comment: Traded the pressure of soccer for the pressure of the NFL
Player: Joe-Max Moore
Team/Affiliation: FC Saarbrucken, German Second Division
Comment: Wynalda’s recommendation landed Moore a job. On loan
Player: Hugo Perez
Comment: Considering offers from Japan and Mexico as well as APSL
Player: Tab Ramos
Team/Affiliation: Real Betis, Spanish First Division
Comment: Recovering from skull fracture suffered in World Cup play. Team newly promoted
Player: Claudio Reyna
Team/Affiliation: Bayer Leverkusen, German Bundesliga
Comment: Embarks on a much-awaited professional career
Player: Jurgen Sommer
Team/Affiliation: Luton Town, English First Division
Comment: Gained experience on World Cup bench
Player: Mike Sorber
Comment: Stock fell after early interest from Germany. Going back to school in St. Louis
Player: Ernie Stewart
Team/Affiliation: Willem II, Dutch First Division
Comment: Returns to longtime club after a frustrating World Cup
Player: Roy Wegerle
Team/Affiliation: Coventry City, English Premier League
Comment: Three knee operations might have taken their toll
Player: Eric Wynalda
Team/Affiliation: VfL Bochum, German Bundesliga
Comment: Hopes excellent club season will continue with a new team