"Trades suck. A team basically tells you that they don't value you for what your contract is worth. It feels like a slap in the face and the worst part is when you don't see a trade coming."
Peter Lowry, The Lowry Lowdown
Sometimes players are aware there's a good possibility of a trade, like when Lowry, then with the Chicago Fire, knew he would be in the expansion draft. He had had contact with John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson ahead of the draft, telling them, "If you're interested in me, I want to be in Portland." But he didn't know for sure if he'd been drafted - and if so, by whom - until it was made public.
Other times it catches players completely unaware. Steven Smith was let go in late December after having only played with the team for a few months, "which for me having a young family from the other end of the world was really unsettling and very hard to understand," he says. "Half a season does not give you the opportunity to show your full capabilities."
"MLS owns our asses," says Lowry. "Don't get me wrong, we're happy that we get to do what we do, but whatever they want you to do, that's what you're going to do."
Steven Smith agrees.
"In MLS the clubs can trade players without warning, regardless of personal situations," says Smith. "Unless you are a protected DP, you don't get much choice, and the club can trade you basically as they please."
Indeed, the most recently available MLS Players Union's Collective Bargaining Agreement contains some rather blunt language about a player's rights with regard to transfers -- and terminations.
Unless otherwise agreed to in an SPA addendum, a Player may be required, without his consent, to relocate to any Team in the League as directed by MLS.
- MLS Players Union Collective Bargaining Agreement, section 15.1.
Where the Player's Category is Semi-Guaranteed*, MLS may terminate an SPA [Standard Player Agreement] between January 1 and the Contract Guarantee Date of any given year, without further obligation on either party if the Player fails, in the sole and absolute discretion of MLS, to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability to qualify for or continue as a member of the Team's active roster.
- MLS Players Union Collective Bargaining Agreement, section 18.7(i)
* According to the Players Union's FAQs (the link is currently broken; information was retrieved in February), a vast majority of MLS contracts are semi-guaranteed.
So when Smith thought he was signing with a team, he was really signing with a league that plays in cities thousands of miles apart, any of which could become his new home with the snap of his fingers.
In Smith's specific case, though, he wasn't traded; he was simply let go without warning at the end of December, which he says was a shock, given what he says he was used to in the United Kingdom.
"From my experience in the UK, if players' contracts are running down in their final year, they may know 6 months in advance if they are staying with the club or not."
The player contracts themselves are different as well, in Smith's experience, with players usually being able to count on a two-year guaranteed contract. By contrast, according to the MLS Players' Union, only about 10 percent of MLS players are signed to guaranteed contracts.
Had Smith been given more notice about his departure, he says he would have had more time to settle his affairs and re-establish contacts with European clubs ahead of the transfer window. As it happened, he will have to wait until the new season begins in the UK in August before he can officially join a new club and resume his career.
Transfers weren't always so frequent, says Lowry. "Even a few years ago, there weren't that many trades. It was kind of expensive to have players go back and forth. In the last couple of years there's been a lot more at stake, so it's more competitive, there's more money."
The numbers support Lowry's rough estimation about transfer frequency. As recently as 2010 the total number of transfers in MLS (excluding players cut from a club and not signed by another) stood at just 171, up from 161 the previous year. That number grew to 279 in 2011 and 290 in 2012.
MLS clubs have already made over 200 transfers for the current season, setting the league on a similar course.
Back in Mick Hoban's era, player transfers were even rarer.
Mick Hoban is a
current employee of volunteer Alumni Ambassador with the Portland Timbers and member of the original Timbers squad that began its participation in the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1975.
"NASL was not a single-entity league," explains Hoban. There was no such thing as a salary cap in those days, "so when a player played well and was liked in the community they tended to stay with their clubs, as there was no advantage to trading them to improve a club's cap position."
That meant players like Hoban, Clive Charles, Jimmy Conway, and Brian Gant were able to play out the majority of their careers in Portland and subsequently settle in the area.
Transfers might seem a necessary evil for a young, single American who just wants to play and doesn't mind where. But it's another thing entirely to convince a player who has a family overseas and is accustomed to playing in a particular climate and soccer culture to come and play for whatever team he ends up with -- and to incur the risk of getting cut from that team with little explanation or warning.
Smith's experience provides a cautionary tale to any young European-based footballer looking to make a career in the US. Such as, say, Mix Diskerud.
As Portland Timbers fans will recall, the club made a strong attempt to sign the young American international during the offseason. Before the deal went south, Diskerud was fairly public in his excitement about playing in Portland under Caleb Porter. But MLS was reportedly insistent that Diskerud be signed to a non-DP contract, which would likely have limited Diskerud's ability to prevent a trade elsewhere in the league.
"In MLS, you have a group of owners that collectively have ruled it unacceptable for example for people like me to join one specific MLS team only," Diskerud reportedly told goal.com in an article last month. "I, for sure, want much more to belong to a team and a city than to be 'owned' by a league."
Thus the selling points of playing in a mild climate, in front of the Timbers Army, and under the direction of coach Caleb Porter, were entirely negated by the inability of the Timbers management and the league as a whole to guarantee that Diskerud would actually get to do all those things.
As more overseas players learn about the very limited rights they have, and the frequency of intersquad transfers, MLS teams will encounter increasing difficulty luring non-DP-level players like Smith and Diskerud from their teams in Europe.
In Part 3 of our story, we'll explore the lasting impacts players have on their clubs, and the impacts clubs, in turn, have on players.
Many thanks to Steven Smith, Mick Hoban, and Peter Lowry, for their contributions to this story. And an extra shout out to friend-of-the-blog Peter Lowry and his fascinating blog, "The Lowry Lowdown." There are many more fascinating insights to be found within.