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MLS: When will its doors reopen for Israeli players?
By DON BARNETT
12/20/2012
Most Israeli soccer fans have developed an awareness of the “Major League Soccer,” the American/Canadian soccer league.
 
Most Israeli soccer fans have developed an awareness of the MLS (“Major League Soccer”), the American/Canadian soccer league which, unlike leagues in other countries, has a peculiarly distinct core as a “Single Entity.”

This concept entails unbridled control over its member clubs and ownership of all its players, who are deemed employees of the MLS that are only assigned to its affiliated clubs, as well as a most unique “Salary Cap” rule which does not exist in any other country.

This rule has in essence closed the door for the many Israeli players who have relished to “Dream the American Dream” with one glaring exception – Dedi Ben Dayan – who briefly played for the Colorado Rapids in parts of the 2005-06 seasons and put up very impressive numbers. With the outbreak of the Second Lebanese War in 2006, he was constrained to return to Israel.

Regrettably, no Israeli payer has joined the ranks of the MLS since.

To begin with, Israeli players are highly attracted to the splendor of America. Many of them spend their summer vacations in the US, especially in places which harbor a vast number of Israeli émigrés, such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas.

Many have close friends and family in these and other communities, and are usually excited by the mere mention of playing with the LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, DC United and other cities which they have visited or whose teams they have watched over the years on Television.

However, enthusiasm turns to dismay once they are confronted by the restrictive Salary Cap rule which has a chilling effect on their aspirations to join the MLS, or in the alternative, by the distorted perception of most MLS executives regarding Israeli soccer and its players.

The practical effect of the Salary Cap rule is to impose on both teams and players ceilings on their clubs’ payroll for the season. The primary exceptions to the individual caps are allotted to “Designated Players,” who can earn an unlimited sum per season but only use up the maximum cap against the team’ cap. Each team is allowed up to three DP’s.

Illustrative of this category are high profile players like Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan of the Galaxy, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill of the Red Bulls, Thorsten Frings of Toronto FC and Freddy Montero of the Seattle Sounders.

The salaries for these players range from an estimated $5 million gross for Henry to as low as $750,000 gross for Montero.

When one factors in the Salary Cap rule to Israeli players, it produces an end result which finds the elite Israeli players winding up in one of the European leagues, where they can command a salary far in excess of the maximum salary allowed in the MLS. These players had not as yet possessed a sufficient global image to command an MLS DP slot, especially since MLS coaches and technical directors do not scout Israeli soccer matches.

There is another major factor which has served to close the door to the MLS to the many who would love to come to places like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, where they would be readily embraced by the vast Jewish and Israeli communities as members of the extended family.

The glaring obstacle to turning this fascination into a reality is the pervasive mindset among most general managers and technical directors in the MLS who hold the view that Israeli soccer is rather slow and substandard.

The irony of this sad saga lies in the fact that nearly half of the MLS clubs are owned by Jewish millionaires who have given their next in command a carte blanche over roster selections and are thus not aware of the policy of exclusion wielded by their subordinates with regard to Israeli players.

As a consequence of this policy, these hapless owners have been deprived of millions of dollars in potential revenues which a popular Israeli star could generate.

After I successfully placed Dedi Ben Dayan with the Rapids, I hoped that he would be just the trailblazer who would forge the path to many others who aspire to play in the MLS.

For the various reasons I have cited this has not been the case. In several instances I set up a trial for players who for some inscrutable reason were not presented an offer.

Among this group of players are quality players like Shalev Menashe, Kfir Edri, and David Revivo.

The task of arranging trials for solid players who may not qualify for one of the elite European leagues is complicated by the fact that the MLS season, which runs from March until November, overlaps that of Israel and most European leagues and restricts the accessibility of MLS preseason training camps to those players under contract in Israel.

As an example, Ilya Yavruyan and Gavriel Lima were denied permission by their respective clubs to depart to the US for a week’s trial in the winter.

The case of David Revivo merits special attention.

Regarded as one of the best playmakers in the league for nearly a decade, he was invited to train with the LA Galaxy in 2006 by its coach Steve Sampson, who had formerly coached the US and the Costa Rica national teams.

Revivo arrived in LA in the summer and greatly impressed Sampson, but It was not to be. Just then, Alexi Lalas, the eccentric redheaded guitarist of the US national team of the 1990’s, was brought in as the Galaxy’s general manager. Lalas was known to harbor a grudge against Sampson dating back to the 1998 World Cup in France, when Sampson kept him on the bench throughout as the US team was eliminated in three games.

Predictably, Lalas fired Sampson after the team went into a tailspin, and as he perceived Revivo as Sampson’s project, chose to “throw out the baby with the bathwater” by vetoing David’s move to the Galaxy.

The Revivo episode is as close as any Israeli player has come to landing in the MLS since Ben Dayan’s return.

When will another player join the MLS? As I see it, when an Israeli player considerably raises his profile and builds his resume with consistent excellent play in Europe.

There are several players now in Europe who appear to fit this image, and the media routinely brings their success to the attention of MLS coaches and executives.

Hopefully, the MLS door will again open to Israeli players soon, and perhaps as early as next season.

Don Barnett is an IFA Player’s agent who currently resides in Munich. A native of Jerusalem, he grew up in the US where he practiced law and mediation. He also coached soccer and basketball in various youth leagues and wrote a sports column for several Jewish publications.
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