Kenny Cooper Sr: Speaking the Truth


Kenny Cooper Sr., a player I watched when growing up in the NASL has always been blunt. Cooper spoke about his son’s recent transfer to Brent Latham, one of the top football correspondents that cover the American game.

Here were some of Cooper’s comments from the Yanks Abroad story and my reaction:

“The value of a player as a young American is not even close to what it should be,” says Cooper, Sr. of the pay scale in MLS. “It’s sad when people from other countries see your talent and reward you, and pay you what you’re worth, as opposed to being an American player who’s told we can’t pay you because this other player makes less.”

I’ve said this for years: MLS priorities at some point shifted from being a developmental league that maximized potential American talent to being concerned about marketing over the hill foreign stars. Some commentators have disagreed vociferously with me about this subject, but my opinion is if middle tier American players like Brian West, Hunter Freeman and Clarence Goodson feel they must move overseas to second tier European leagues to get paid a fare wage on the open market, MLS is failing.

“I still have difficulty understanding in this league, as I expressed to the commissioner in Toronto last July, I can’t understand when you have young American players who can play anywhere in the world and they’re somewhat punished because they’re Americans,” he says. “As someone who’s been in the league and the country as a coach, and the system for 38 years, I think that this league at times would rather reward a proven failure than unlimited potential.”

Again another point I have routinely made: In any other domestic league, a national team starting striker like Brian Ching or a consistent squad player like Steve Ralston would be compensated in a comparable fashion to relatively unaccomplished foreign players who have been bought by the league. Ralston, for instance, has been in this league from the beginning: in 1996 he helped lead Tampa Bay to the Supporters Shield (which did not exist at the time) and later led New England to four MLS Cup appearances. 14 seasons, and yet his wage is not comparable to several foreign players, who have never been capped internationally yet have signed in MLS.

“They’ve done a lot of things right – soccer specific stadiums, great ownership – but there shouldn’t be a ceiling put on great American players,” says Cooper. “Then they bring in a foreign player and they say ‘we’ll make him the DP, the highest paid player,’ and there’s no reward for a person who works hard and builds up the club.”

I agree on the stadiums but perhaps not on the ownership unless we are talking Maple Leaf Sports, Red Bull and Seattle ’s ownership group. The original investors in this league have done a poor job of marketing the league beyond a small niche group of fans and have not invested in player development the way for example Red Bull has over the past few years

Regarding the foreign player DP spots, I continue to be perplexed by a system where you are penalized for developing talent and making players successful. You cannot resign your own players and get no cap exemption if a player is home grown. The Larry Bird rule in the NBA was probably needed in MLS more than the Beckham rule.

I have spoken to many a player in the last few years that have opted to play in USL over MLS when offered extensions in MLS because of the salary cap- in other words they were offered 35k in MLS, even though the team wanted them to stay, while being offered  let’s say 50k and living expenses in USL. These obviously aren’t your Kenny Cooper type players but still are valuable guys that fill out a squad and have a veteran savvy.

Before 1860 Munich moved in, Cooper was close to a deal to move back to England with Championship club Bristol City, but that accord apparently fell apart over MLS’ insistence that the player sign over his right to ten percent of the transfer fee, a percentage guaranteed by FIFA bylaws. A deal that would have sent Cooper to Norwegian side Rosenberg last summer also fell apart over Cooper’s refusal to sign over his portion of the fee.

MLS’ stinginess over players’ share of transfer fees was not directed solely at Cooper, it turns out. Nearly every player to leave MLS, with the exception of Brad Guzan, has reportedly been convinced to give up their portion of the fee.

“You can call it business or whatever you want, but what I call it is incorrect,” the elder Cooper says of the practice. “Every player in the world gets ten percent, so why would you stop a young player from getting his, when you’re making millions? Why would Kenny give up $500,000 when the league’s making five million? Nowhere else in the world does that happen.”

This is just mind boggling and something FIFA may be forced to deal with. MLS’ insistence that players, many of which have not been fairly compensated for years return their portion of the transfer fee to the league they are leaving is simply preposterous. Moreover, in no other part of the world does the single entity structure exist where the league actually cashes in to this extent on a player sale- another detriment to specific clubs developing their talent.

It’s no wonder so many college kids opt to stick out an extra year in the PDL where they can freely move to Europe and obtain trials abroad. Once you sign in MLS, you lose much of your ability to test the market or even move abroad if a foreign club wants to sign you. Just ask Taylor Twellman or Shalrie Joseph.

I cannot express my anger about this strongly enough. MLS ownership and management do not value young American players enough to pay them a decent wage and then try and rob them on their way out of the league as they seek greener pastures abroad. Is MLS still in constant survival mode that they must do this?

“Kenny is not the finished product, he’s got a long way to go,” the coach says. “He’s 24, he’s not going to come into his best as a striker until he’s 27. Kenny has recognized that if he wants to develop his career and become a permanent fixture in the national team, he needs to play in Europe. Coach Bradley’s mentality is that if you guys need to get better you need to play in Europe. That’s how we came to this decision.

Here is the answer for those that are concerned that Bob Bradley calls the very guys in when in Europe that he ignores when they are in MLS. Again, Bradley has plenty of experience viewing both European Football and MLS (as well as Mexico through his assistant Mike Sorber) to make educated and responsible decisions on these matters. As Bradley’s tenure has played out, his confidence in his European based players has been rewarded with remarkable results including a win over Spain, while largely MLS based teams have struggled, most recently being thrashed 5-0 by Mexico.

“We’re not bitter, not at all, but I feel a responsibility as someone who’s seen the process at work. They’ve got to understand, you don’t do business that way,” said Cooper, reiterating that he anticipates his son returning to MLS later in his career. “Hopefully by then they pay Americans what they’re truly worth.”

This is another reason why the players association MUST be given deference by the league’s management, with regards to the ongoing CBA negotiation. The CBA that kicks in for 2009 could be the most critical moment in MLS history.

In summary, we all want MLS to be successful and better our nation’s football culture. But currently, the league is less interested in developing American talent, and working to ensure a fair market wage to home grown players than it is in signing and marketing over the hill foreign stars. While this may be a recipe for financial survival, it also could eventually leads to disastrous results for our national team and football culture.

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About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the World Soccer Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the books 'Blue With Envy' about Manchester City FC, and 'Soccerwarz' about the MLS, USL and NASL infighting.
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