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No Solidarity: Why Youth Clubs Are Demanding Payment From Major League Soccer

Drew Sellers-SportsPress News

Is American exceptionalism hampering youth development?

When the deal for Matt Miazga officially went through on Saturday, Chelsea reportedly agreed to pay about $5 million for the American defender. As with every such transfer, the Blues won’t be paying Miazga’s team, The New York Red Bulls, directly. In this country, 100% of top-flight transfer fees goes to Major League Soccer.

In MLS, players sign contracts with the league and are then allocated to the team that “bought” them. When they leave the league, MLS eventually allocates a percentage of the transfer fee to be used by that team in future transfers. America is unique in this regard, and some of the country’s youth clubs now claim that this practice, bizarre by international standards, is detrimental to the development of young American players.

How is this legal? All FIFA member countries—unlike FIFA’s top brass—are expected to follow certain rules when it comes to their financial transactions. Articles 20 and 21 of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players stipulate that the clubs, with which a player trained as a youth, are entitled to money whenever the player is sold until “the end of the season of his 23rd birthday.” These clubs split 5% of the transfer fee, each one taking a cut proportional to how much time the player spent with that club.

The reason for these “training compensations” and “solidarity fees” is fairly obvious: clubs are rewarded when players they developed sign big contracts, thus providing the incentive and resources to further the cause of youth development.

If you’re thinking, ”Hmm, that kind of wealth-spreading doesn’t sound like something Americans would be comfortable with,” you’re right! Major League Soccer has never paid these fees, citing the 1997 Fraser v. Major League Soccer decision. 

A full explanation of the case can be found here. In layman’s terms, it designates the MLS as a single entity since team owners are technically owners of the league who control teams. This designation exempts the league from anti-trust laws on the grounds that there cannot be unlawful collusion if there is only one party. The case ended with a judge ordering USSF not to “impose, implement, or enforce, in any way” FIFA’s rules regarding transfer and, by extension, solidarity fees, allowing MLS to take 100% of the money whenever a player leaves for another league.

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DeAndre Yedlin signed with Tottenham Hotspur this summer. Sadly, a controversy over solidarity fees has been the most interesting result of his move to the Premier League (Courtesy of the Premier League).

The recent dust-up, currently awaiting a decision by FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Chamber, started over the summer when Crossfire Premiere, the youth club that brought up USMNT star DeAndre Yedlin, demanded solidarity fees from MLS after Yedlin’s $4 million transfer from Seattle Sounders FC to Tottenham Hotspur.

Miazga’s transfer likely won’t contribute to this issue, as he came from Red Bulls’ academy, but a number of other youth clubs, including the former clubs of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, have joined Crossfire’s petition. The U.S. Soccer Federation has stated that it does not necessarily oppose solidarity fees but will have nothing to do with them, while the MLS Players Union vehemently opposes them.

Training compensation and solidarity payments unjustly inhibit the labor market for players,” the union’s executive director told Sports Illustrated in an interesting case of labor siding with management. He has a point. U.S. players have a tough enough time breaking into the world’s best leagues, and when they do, clubs rarely pay big sums for them.

Why make it more expensive to buy them? Some would argue that you simply cannot expect your country to get better at soccer without paying attention to youth development. A revolution in scouting and youth training was one of the key components of Germany’s World Cup win, as detailed in Raphael Honigstein’s brilliant Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World

Indeed, many of the most successful Americans to play in Europe were brought up in German youth facilities, but outsourcing youth development to the Germans isn’t a great long-term strategy for our national team.

A perfect example of how focus on young players can pay dividends for the national team is Iceland, whom the Yanks will face Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. The island nation, with a population roughly equivalent to that of St. Louis,  just qualified for its first-ever European Championship, beating out the Netherlands in the process. 

Due to a lack of high-profile sponsors and TV deals, Iceland’s premier division is semi-pro, but the Football Association of Iceland realized a while back that its national team could still make a splash if the island produced quality players and sent them abroad. 

By funding the construction of fields (many of them indoors) in towns around the country and the hiring of qualified, full-time youth coaches, Iceland has fielded a team that will pose a serious threat to the U.S. this afternoon.

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Icelandic kids receive high-quality coaching and can practice year-round thanks to new indoor facilities (Courtesy of Iceland FA).

Of course, it’s easier to give every kid access to good facilities in countries the size of Iceland and Germany. In addition to being as big as Europe, the U.S. has far fewer top-flight clubs, which means far fewer top-flight youth academies. Doesn’t it make sense, then, to have the upper league(s) support non-profit youth clubs?

U.S. Soccer wants us to move away from pay-to-play, an unfair model which our clubs don’t particularly care for,” said an attorney for Crossfire and others, according to Soccer America. “But all of us are non-profit. How do you want us to move away from pay-to-play? Millions of dollars of training compensation and solidarity fees could do that and change the game in the U.S.”

Youth clubs insist that the money from solidarity fees would be used to create better facilities and hire more coaches, upping the level of competition at the youth level, attracting bigger sponsors, and bringing much more money and attention to the development of young Americans.

Still, it looks like the road to solidarity will be a lonely one. Even if FIFA rules in favor of the youth clubs, who’s going to enforce the decision? American soccer is already ignoring FIFA on this issue, its top league and its players are united in their opposition to solidarity fees, and USSF has already said it will not get involved. 

Perhaps the deadlock between American soccer and FIFA would end up in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, or perhaps it could go back to the U.S. justice system, which has already ruled in favor of monopoly exemptions for MLS.

In the meantime, we will have to see how the U.S. youth development system, such as it is, functions without the benefits received by its counterparts throughout the world. USMNT manager, Jürgen Klinsmann, has fielded a team consisting largely of young players who spent their early days in-country for Sunday’s match. Let’s see how they do against the products of the Icelandic youth development renaissance.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, Jaidyn Hart.

For what country's U18 team did Matt Miazga play before he decided to represent the U.S.?
Created 1/28/16
  1. Poland
  2. Germany
  3. Mexico
  4. Argentina

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