Friday, February 2, 2018

Larin broke free, Finlay didn't

Player careers are short. As observers of the league, we tend to look at longevity as a whole and not drill down to an individual player. It's natural. Remeber Ethan Finlay and his two magical years with Columbus? For fans, everything is okay for because Pedro Santos came in and replaced him.

Finlay had a break out year in 2014 when he was basically on a league minimum contract ($66k). 11 Goals and 7 Assists in less than 2000 minutes put him near the top of any mid-fielders in the league making 5x that amount. MLS rewarded him with a raise for the next season by bumping him up to $142k, which was still far below other players producing what he was.

2015 saw Finlay top his previous season in terms of production with one of the best in team history. 12 goals, 13 assists and helped take Columbus to a home game in MLS Cup final. His reward, another raise. This time to $250k. STILL well under what others with similar output made. During this time we saw Finlay get National Team call-ups.

It's here that trouble came.

2016 was the year things fell apart in Columbus. Kei Kamara, who was the difference-making player that propelled the Crew to the final, wanted more money. Running parallel to that was rumors about Finlay exploring options abroad. It made for a bad season in Columbus, arguably the second worst in team history. To his credit, and without the services of Kei Kamara, Finlay chugged along and finished the season with 6 goals and 9 assists.

We'll never know if Finlay signed a 2 year deal in 2016 or if it was a one year deal with an option, but his wages only jumped to $290k in 2017. What was clear is that Finlay wanted more. He wanted to be paid what he was worth.

In the rest of the world, a player striking fire like he did means other clubs will start circling for his services and open their checkbooks, but in MLS there is a barrier to that. Teams can't bid on players like they can elsewhere. Finlay's rise was right on the front of new financial rules like TAM and GAM. For him, it's unfortunate. But even with those rules, you have a tricky contract qualifier called a "player option." Meaning, another team can swoop in, pay a little bit of allocation and keep his wages low. In a nutshell, that's what happened when he was let go to Minnesota halfway through the 2017 season.

Year: Mins - G - A - Wage
2014: 1898 - 11 - 6 - $66k
2015: 2790 - 12 - 13 - $143k
2016: 2462 - 6 - 9 - $250k
2017: 2262 - 4 - 4 - 290k

Finlay is about to turn 28 years old. He has another one or two years ahead of him, yes, but he missed out on capitalizing on two of the best seasons of his career. He doesn't get to go back to 2014 and 15. Because of MLS rules he has missed out on tens of thousands of dollars, possibly hundreds.

Finlay is no Pedro Santos. They have different skills, different players. Does Finlay have deficencies in his game? Of course, but based on production alone, Finlay was worth close to double what he was paid in 2016.


This brings us to Larin. The number one "SuperDraft" pick in 2015 set a scoring rookie record that year for Orlando City (17 goals in less than 2000 minutes). He followed that season up with another 14 goals and 3 assists in 2016. No new contract came and he was still making less than $200k. Like Finlay, word started to spread that he wanted out and that he had options overseas. But because of the way MLS works, it's not very valuable to sell him off. MLS keeps most of the fee and Orlando is stuck losing a relatively rare talent for not much in return. So what usually happens? Nothing. The player is stuck.

Larin decided to take another route. Force his way out.

With only a "team option" keeping him in Orlando he took it upon himself to go meet with teams overseas that had interest. Going as far as taking pictures with a Besiktas jersey on. Orlando cried foul and claimed that he couldn't go because of the "option" held on him for the 2018 season. The problem here for Orlando (and MLS) is that the rest of the world does not recognize a team option. You are either signed to a contract or not.

MLS considered going to the mat to keep Larin but were ultimately frightened away by the very real prospect of losing the argument on the validity of player options. Imagine for a moment - what if that did happen. It would completely change the landscape of player contracts in MLS.

So the league let him go and in return for the trouble gave Orlando 100% of his transfer fee. This, reportedly, ruffled the feathers of the other MLS franchises a great deal, but MLS took the lesser of two evils (for them).

The lesson here is a rough one for players outperforming their contracts in MLS. They've got you.


The increase in allocation money has loosened things up a bit, but that does not help players necessarily earn what they are worth when they are hitting a hot streak in their short careers. Pluck a player out of Columbus and they are still beholden to whatever contract they have, including the option.

The solution to this problem is to let teams keep most (if not all) the fee a foreign team is willing to pay. The "homegrown" rule change last year allowing MLS teams to keep all the fee is a baby step, but not nearly good enough.

The barriers in place need to be removed. The incentive for players to outperform their contracts needs to be there.

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