Note: This is my MLS Daily column for the week, and I expect it will show up there eventually as well. With the USA-Mexico roster coming out, my guess is that the column was bumped for at least a little while. I couldn't deprive you though, and so I leave it to you to read here (oh, but also be sure to visit the excellence that is MLS Daily).
So Kenny Cooper is finally off, gone to make his fortune in the glorious world of European soccer. Bully for him. For most of us, seeing Cooper leave is just about as shocking as discovering that cheap vodka gives you a hangover or that David Beckham wants out of LA (again).
"Inevitable" seems the be the best word to describe it.
Cooper's transfer, to a second division German club, might be the next logical step for his career, and for that (provided you don't have any particular dislike for Kenny) we should be happy. But it's also a disheartening reminder that MLS is still light years away from being able to compete on anything approaching a level playing field with other leagues around the world. Forget top-flights; MLS is clearly second best to Bundesliga 2.
It's hard to blame a young American player for wanting to skip out on MLS when clubs like TSV 1860 Munich are able to double or triple their salaries. It's hard to look at Cooper or anyone in his shoes and say, "Show some loyalty, man! Help grow soccer in the US!"
That ship has clearly sailed, and won't be returning to port until Major League Soccer ups the ante. When you artificially hold down salaries for players that should be the foundation of the league, you shouldn't be too surprised when they leap at the chance to head abroad. Cooper isn't the first, and certainly won't be the last, good young American talent whose future plans will be drawn up without the letters "MLS" appearing anywhere in them.
According to Kenny's father, himself Kenny Cooper, the system is seriously flawed. The league puts too much emphasis and pays too much of a premium to foreign players while underpaying good American ones, in his opinion.
Of course he's right, but it's not as black and white as Herr Cooper would like to make it seem. There's a reason MLS pays foreign players more to ply their trade here: They have to. The reputation of MLS outside (and mostly inside for that matter) of American and Canadian borders isn't exactly stellar; when players consider coming to here to play, it's not the quality of the league or the glory of winning the MLS Cup that draws them.
When your biggest attraction is lifestyle, you're going to have to overpay for mediocre talent. There simply aren't enough good American players to fill rosters, so the importing of players from outside the country is a necessary evil. Foreign players have more options than their American counterparts, generally speaking, and that means that MLS clubs have to pay more to get them here. It also means, because the league can keep down salaries for Americans, they will keep down salaries for Americans. If you spend more than you should have to in one area, trying to save money in another just makes good business sense.
Is it right? Of course not. In a perfect world, Kenny Cooper could get in Dallas what he'll be making in Munich, and good, young, American players would be all over MLS rather than spread across Europe. Names like Tracy, Zizzo, Parkhurst, Goodson, etc., would be gracing teams sheets on this side of the pond, rather than those of lower and secondary league clubs in football-mad Europe. I'd like to think that if MLS could, they would; maybe it's just the realities of running a soccer league in America that has the situation turned around. Still, nothing will change without a serious relaxation in the salary cap and allocation rules, and as far as I can tell, that's not coming anytime soon.
It's an ugly trade off, shorting the players that should be the league's biggest focus so that you can mind every dollar while bringing in foreign players.
Like moths to a flame, American players will continue to flock to Europe by any means necessary. The career of an athlete, especially in the chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out world of soccer, is a short one; cashing in while you can is both imperative and defensible. MLS has more than its share of lesser-talented American players, for whom love of the game and a desire to see the sport succeed in the US seem to be enough. But those players are only loyal to the cause because they have to be; given to option to follow in Kenny Cooper's footsteps and bolt for a European second-division club, they'd do so in a heartbeat, anxious for the opportunity and desperate for the pay raise.
It's the reality of American soccer. What we have is a league full of foreign mercenaries cashing in on marginal talent and frustrated Americans who might prefer to be elsewhere if given the chance.
I suppose using the phrase "necessary evil" (for the second time, sorry about that) gives the league too much of a free pass. From a business standpoint, the salary discongruity might be somewhat understandable; but the situation that Cooper's father laments absolutely sits on the head of MLS, who has chosen to take a ultra-conservative approach to players salaries, creating a system in which teams take on Americans at massive discounts while filling out their rosters with overpaid foreign internationals. Changes are needed desperately, and we can only hope that they are coming.
Until then, and perhaps even afterwards, Americans will continue to be second class citizens in their own domestic league, and continue to look for ways out at every opportunity.
And so we see another American head to the Continent, his head full of dreams and his wallet full of cash.
Auf wiedersehen, Kenny Cooper.