Rich men getting dressed alongside even richer men has become the norm in locker rooms across the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
But it’s different in Major League Soccer, which mixes its richest athletes amid teammates who may need offseason jobs to make ends meet.
In a growing number of cases, MLS even highlights the disparity by bestowing a title on the richest of their rich: designated player.
In the past week, five new DPs have come into the league: French forward Thierry Henry in New York, Mexican forward Nery Castillo in Chicago, Montenegro midfielder Branko Boskovic in D.C., Spanish forward Mista in Toronto and Swiss forward Blaise Nkufo in Seattle.
“I think the term ‘designated player’ is kind of a dorky term,” Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer said last week. “Because all over the world you have players that make more money than other players, and they’re not called anything special. They’re just highly compensated players.”
MLS created the DP as a way of allowing big-name players into the league without unleashing the kind spending often credited for dooming the North American Soccer League. However, in a league in which clubs must operate within a $2.55 million salary cap, the exceptions created for designated players can create striking disparities.
In Los Angeles, David Beckham’s $6.5 million salary is about 11/2 times that of all of his teammates combined. And in Seattle, Freddie Ljungberg’s $1.3 million more than four times that of star goalkeeper Kasey Keller, according to figures from the MLS Players Union.
It may be no coincidence that Beckham and Ljungberg each have had sometimes-bumpy rides with their clubs, including public criticisms that they have held themselves apart from their teammates.
That issue went national again last week when ESPN soccer analyst Kyle Martino said before the Sounders game at D.C. United that some of Ljungberg’s teammates perceive him as a diva.
“It’s (Martino’s) opinion,” Hanauer said. “It certainly didn’t come from this group. … Those guys get paid to draw eyeballs and say things that get people intrigued. That was his opinion.”
Officially, the Sounders have not acknowledged any tension between the club and Ljungberg, attributing his almost weeklong absence to an ankle injury. But they have not disputed reports that Ljungberg may soon be transferred or traded. And when asked directly, Hanauer has said “all options are on the table.”
But for all that, Hanauer didn’t hesitate to bestow the DP title upon Nkufo, who made his debut Sunday in the club’s 2-1 loss to Celtic FC.
Nkufo’s $480,000 salary could have fit under Seattle’s salary cap even without the designated-player exception. However, Hanauer said there were some bookkeeping advantages to the designation, and neither he nor Nkufo seems concerned about how the veteran will handle the brighter spotlight.
“Everybody has pressure, it’s not just me,” Nkufo said. “I think all the players of this team have pressure and we have to deal. That’s normal. That’s a part of our job. I just try to get back my feeling, do my job, what I know and what’s connected to the team.”
At age 35, Nkufo is used to both expectations and adulation.
He has been a professional soccer player since age 18, playing with a dozen clubs along the way. And he has made 27 appearances for the Swiss national team, including three starts in the 2010 World Cup.
He scored a club-record 114 league goals for his most recent club, Holland’s FC Twente. And before his departure last week, the club immortalized him with a bronze statue outside the stadium.
If the DP designation brings additional expectations, Hanauer seems confident that Nkufo has both the soccer skills and the personal disposition to handle them.
“It may be harder for him,” Hanauer said. “But we’ve been very clear with him: The fans … are going to expect what they’re going to expect. But, again, our focus is winning. And if Blaise comes in and helps us win – and we signed him because we believe he will – through his leadership, through his experience, he’s a smart soccer player … regardless of how many goals he bangs in, I think our fans will be happy about that.”
Hanauer also acknowledged all those qualities might be needed by a man who will be making almost half a million dollars on a club where eight of his teammates make less than $50,000.
“Everyone has to respect each other from the top to bottom,” Hanauer said this week. “… You walk around with (Sounders chief executive officer) Tod Leiweke in Qwest Field, he knows the names of most of the people that are ushers and concessions people. And that’s respectful; it’s just the right thing to do. So, yes, I think that’s very important. And I think it goes both ways. The people who don’t make as much money, maybe they’re on their way up, they need to be respectful of the people who are making the money as well, and not be resentful.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer