Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's a Hard Knock Life (For Them)

By Tim Froh
Contributing Writer – Climbing the Ladder

We’ve all been there before; living paycheck to paycheck, eating unhealthy because you can’t afford better, adjusting to life with multiple roommates, struggling to get by in the big city. That sounds like the life of a poor college student or a struggling single mom, the polar opposite of the life of an American professional athlete. However, these hardships are everyday realities for an MLS developmental player, even if, by all outward appearances, you’d never know it. With David Beckham’s introduction on July 13, ushering in a new era of mega salaries (by MLS standards), the gap between the haves and the have-nots will never have been wider.

MLS, as America’s premier professional soccer league, was supposed to provide young American players with professional opportunities before or after college. But the realities of being a developmental player are as daunting and difficult as trying to put yourself through college. In MLS, the stakes are higher, the possibility of failure constantly looming. For two Chicago Fire developmental players, the path to MLS success has been fraught with challenges both on and off the pitch.

For Jeff Curtin, the path to MLS seemed natural enough. His brother, Jim, has been a Fire stalwart since 2001. Unlike some of his teammates, Jeff had someone there from the beginning to help him transition to the challenges of being an MLS rookie. Last season, Jeff lived with his brother (who will make over $120,000 in guaranteed salary this season). This season though, Jeff lives alone, even if that means paying more rent. As he put it, the life of a developmental player is “obviously not an ideal situation.”

Jeff’s teammate, Jordan Russolillo assured me that this was by no means an exaggeration. “I’m pretty much living on appearances,” he told me when I first asked him about surviving in Chicago on a developmental salary. And to all appearances, Jordan seemed like a normal twenty-something Chicagoan. But life is hard on a salary that barely reaches five figures. He even corroborated the analogy with college life: “If you have the…availability of getting money here and there from your parents…[this] is not something most people have. It’s limited and I don’t really have the opportunity for that.” His situation is so dire that there isn’t even enough money to eat healthy. The only thing that would seem to separate him from the countless struggling college students in Chicago is his status as a professional athlete.

Jordan and Jeff are just two stories among many throughout the league. Only two seasons ago, D.C. United goalkeeper Troy Perkins seemed to be the poster boy for the developmental player, working another job just to make ends meet. But for Russolillo and Curtin, the realities aren’t so simple. Both players supplement their income with coaching gigs in the fall and winter, but as Curtin pointed out, appearances to the contrary, MLS can be demanding all on its own. While two hours a day of practice might not sound like much of a job, it is one that is both physically demanding and emotionally taxing, especially as the body begins to tire and the airline miles start to rack up.

If fighting for time with the first team wasn’t stressful enough, many of these players face an unrelenting reality of bills, a steady diet of cheap, unhealthy food and the nagging problem of big city survival. The situation is such that Curtin contemplated a move to the USL (formerly the A League) as recently as last season (“I almost didn’t put with it at all to be honest,” he told me). While Russolillo won’t consider a move to the USL, he’s equally adamant that the situation is almost unbearable. So what drives these athletes to play for almost nothing, to struggle to survive for the game they love? “It’s a matter of getting that chance,” Russolillo told me. “You work hard and put everything into this you know, you try to be a better player to the point where you’re actually earning a pretty good living,” Curtin echoed. For these players, it’s MLS or bust. It’s about playing at the highest level you can, pushing yourself as a person and as a player.

But what kind of opportunities for growth does MLS provide for the developmental player? When I asked Curtin and Russolillo about the reserve league, the responses were very mixed, but both players agreed that there’s still a lot of work to be done. “You don’t even think of it as a league,” Curtin said. Perhaps this is because there are only twelve reserve games over the entire course of the MLS season. Both Curtin and Russolillo noted that it had been over a month since the Fire’s last reserve match.

The two developmental players differed quite significantly over its merits. Curtin is decidedly upbeat about the benefits of the reserve league. He noted that the coaching staff is at every match and that “everyone’s trying to prove something out there.” When I pressed him about the quality of the matches, he didn’t hesitate to tell me that they’re good-quality games. But the reserve league is certainly not without its weaknesses, and Russolillo was less reluctant to point them out. His response to my inquiries was blunt: “The reserve team…I don’t think it really helps the players at all.” Injuries and an already-limiting 23-man roster are the biggest factors. “If the teams are healthy,” he pointed out, “you’ll get competitive games.” If not though, teams will often field guest players to pad out their sides. This makes cohesion on the pitch almost impossible, and demonstrates what Russolillo feels is carelessness among certain MLS clubs.

Both he and Curtin hesitated when I asked them whether the reserve leagues had helped them develop as players. This, both felt, came down to the limited schedule and the lack of playing time. It’s hard to develop your skills against quality competition when you’re only playing ninety-minute matches maybe twice every couple of months. Curtin at least has had the good fortune of playing with the first team this season. Russolillo hasn’t been so lucky. A defender plagued by injuries on a team that has already been hit hard by the injury bug, Russolillo has not had the chance to even try and earn himself a spot with the first team. For a player that is already struggling to survive, nothing could be more frustrating. This is a climate where every practice, every reserve game, every first-team minute counts.

Solving the problems of the reserve team system will not be easy. It’s difficult to say whether players like Chris Wondolowski of the Houston Dynamo have improved because of the reserve league or in spite of it. His stellar goal-scoring record in reserve competition certainly helped him earn more looks from head coach Dominic Kinnear, but it’s questionable whether or not the league actually made him a better, sharper player, or if it merely provided Kinnear with the opportunity to watch Wondolowski play the closest equivalent to a first-team match that he’d get. No one will dispute that the reserve league has had a positive impact, however slight, on MLS player development, but enormous strides are still needed for the league to take the next step. For Curtin, Russolillo, and countless other developmental players though, the first big step MLS and the MLSPU (MLS Players’ Union) can take is transforming into a true professional enterprise and providing even those on the lowest end of the totem pole with the means to survive and thrive, both as players and as people.

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