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Soccer's American idols

Strong performances in the World Cup in Germany could mean European contracts worth big bucks for the cream of the crop of U.S. players.
Clint Dempsey
U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey kicks the ball during the team's first training session in Hamburg, Germany. Dempsey is one of a handful of American players who could see a big jump in pay if he has a successful World Cup.Elise Amendola / AP
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Clint Dempsey, a rising star of American soccer, has come a long way in his 23 years. He grew up in a trailer in East Texas and polished his skills on dusty fields against the sons of Mexican migrant workers. Now, with the rest of the U.S. men's national team, he's preparing for his first World Cup, in Germany. And if Dempsey, aka "Deuce," lights up the pitch in the tournament, his fortunes could change even more dramatically. With two or three smashing goals, the youngster could land a lucrative European contract, leaping from the low-profile U.S. professional league to the center of the international soccer world.

The financial stakes are sky-high. As an All-Star player for the New England Revolution in America's Major League Soccer, Dempsey makes $86,000 a year. Signing a contract with an English second-division club or a club in Holland, France, or Belgium would triple his base salary overnight. Incentive bonuses would drive his potential income even higher. Europeans scouts are already watching him, and Dutch power Feyenoord Rotterdam has had him in for training. "Clint Dempsey is your breakout player, "says Eric Wynalda, ESPN commentator and former U.S. national team star: "Dempsey is young and brash, but talented."

Financial jackpot
He's just one of a crop of young, gifted American soccer players heading into the World Cup tournament with more on the line than just wins and losses. The others include U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu, forward Eddie Johnson, and midfielders John O'Brien and DaMarcus Beasley. If they and other U.S. players shine in the month-long tournament kicking off on June 9, then they may be sought out and signed to contracts by top clubs in Europe.

For top Yank players, it's the opportunity to hit the financial jackpot. One 90-minute stretch of spectacular dribbling, visionary passing, tough tackling, or breakthrough goal-scoring at the World Cup could prove the difference between earning a million dollars in London or Madrid, or toiling for modest wages in Kansas City or Columbus, Ohio.

True, it's not quite the same as fleeing back to the Brazilian favelas, or slums. But the reality is that the salary gap between the U.S. and Europe is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. The average salary in England's Premiership, the world's top league, is $1.25 million — excluding incentive-laden performance bonuses. The average MLS player earns about $90,000, and many players make the starting minimum — $37,000. Only two players in the MLS earn $1 million: Los Angeles Galaxy's Landon Donovan, a star for the U.S. national team, and Juan Francisco Palencia, a former Mexican national team star playing for Chivas USA. (Wunderkind Freddy Adu, who just turned 17, rakes in about $500,000 a year). Even in the English second division, the average salary is about $375,000 a year.

Other players have already shown the way across the Atlantic. Two years ago, Ryan Nelsen turned down $260,000 — one of the biggest contracts the MLS has ever offered a defender — and opted to sign with English Premier club Blackburn Rovers. The New Zealand native received a base contract of about $400,000 and the potential to earn hefty bonuses on top of that. "He would have been the best-paid defender in the MLS," says Soccer Times senior writer Bob Wagman. "He was an unknown quantity but ends up captain of the team, playing every minute, and now he's a star. Last year, he made close to a million dollars."

Patience pays off
Players on the American team face more obstacles than just the Italian and Czech talent they'll meet on the field. There are strict work-permit issues in England as well as restrictions in most European countries for non-European Union players. Still, the economic lure is strong enough to prompt the American soccer player to consider Europe's third-tier leagues in Scandinavia, Portugal, or the lower divisions in Germany and England.

But they must be prepared to battle red tape. That's what Bobby Convey, a speedy left-footed winger, did. The 23-year-old had caught the eye of Tottenham Hotspurs, an English Premiership team, but a lack of starting time on the U.S. men's national team tripped him up. The labor council ruled against a work permit because he hadn't played enough for the senior men's team — a requirement for foreigners to get a work permit in England. Convey returned to the States and rejoined his old team — DC United. He remained patient and ensured his league play was landing him on the national team.

A year later, he joined England's Reading, in the second division, and breezed through the permit process. That bumped his salary threefold — at least. After two years, Reading won a promotion to the Premiership. Convey just signed a new contract that could push his salary close to $1 million, including incentives.

One major reason for the discrepancy in pay is the economics underlying the U.S. and European leagues. When it comes to soccer, Europe is the quintessence of free-wheeling capitalism, with billionaire owners like Chelsea's Roman Abramovich bidding up the salaries of top players. The U.S. league is anything but extravagant. After many years of rocky financial results for U.S. soccer, the MLS was set up with tight controls over the teams.

It's the league — not the teams — that negotiate salaries with players, and a salary cap for each team is strictly enforced. The goal is to have a balance of talent so no one team can dominate. The result is that just 22 players out of the 336 active players make more than $200,000. On most teams, there are one or two stars who are highly paid and many who make modest, journeymen salaries. Each team has four or so development players who earn $11,000 a year.

TV exposure
The league is backed by a number of prominent businessmen. They include Phil Anschutz, who made a fortune in oil and gas and founded Qwest Communications, and Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and son of oil tycoon H. L. Hunt. One reason for the league's tight control over spending is that team revenues have been limited and there has been no contract for television coverage. This year, Walt Disney cut a deal to carry MLS games on its ABC and ESPN channels.

As the World Cup nears, the European scouts are honing in on four top U.S. prospects: Dempsey, Onyewu, Johnson, and Beasley. If midfielder O'Brien stays healthy, he's likely to return to Europe at the end of the MLS season. Onyewu and Beasley play soccer for clubs in Belgium and Holland, respectively, considered second-tier to the big three — England, Italy, and Spain.

Johnson kicks the ball for the MLS club in Kansas City. "Clint is versatile and creative and can score goals," says Richard Motzkin, the Los Angeles-based agent for Johnson and Dempsey and many other top-flight U.S. players. "Eddie's a proven goal scorer, he's strong, and he's fast. And Gooch (Onyewu) is an extremely solid and imposing defender who has already done well in Belgium. Those young players are clearly on the radar screens of European clubs, and with a good performance at the World Cup, could springboard to a European contract or to a bigger European club."

Attention grabber
Dempsey may have the most opportunity to break out financially. The charismatic midfielder, who won Rookie of the Year honors in the MLS in 2004, is a brash newcomer to professional soccer. He juggles the ball to hip-hop, and wrote, sang, and released a rap video produced for Nike called Don't Tread on Me. The tune is now played before every U.S. soccer home match. But Dempsey typically doesn't start for the national team. He'll have to make the most of his playing time or push his way onto the starting squad to grab the attention of European clubs.

O'Brien, 28, who plied his trade with Dutch champions Ajax from age 16, has suffered through an unfortunate string of injuries since his decisive play for the men's quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup. Ajax released him and he eventually returned to Los Angeles to treat his various leg troubles. He makes $250,000 a year for Chivas USA, the MLS team in Los Angeles. If he thrives in the World Cup and stays healthy for the entire MLS season, this technically gifted soccer player will likely be back in Europe.

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Onyewu, 24, a central defender for Belgium champs Standard Liege, towers over his teammates and terrorizes the smaller Belgium forwards with his imposing play. Elite clubs such as Manchester United have been watching what Soccer Times writer Wagman describes as a "prototypical England center back." He could easily see his base salary bumped to over a $1 million, from an estimated $350,000 today, if a top English club snatches him up, as expected.

Regaining confidence
The other hot commodity is Johnson. The 22- year-old striker has been on the radar of European scouts for some time. He has explosive speed, strong technical skills, an imposing physical presence, and excels in the air. Johnson has entertained offers from one of Portugal's top teams — Club Porto — and he has trained with Manchester United.

However, Johnson has the most to prove to the European scouts. First, a longer-than-expected toe injury damaged his considerable skills and dulled his playing until very recently. Johnson appears to be regaining the confidence he displayed in the early qualifying matches, where he was averaging a goal a game for the U.S. national team.

Johnson needs to terrorize defenses and score goals. That's partly because he is no bargain. Johnson is one of the highest paid players in the MLS, earning a base salary of about $800,000. He signed a long-term contract last year. If he leaves, expect the MLS to demand a transfer fee of upward of $4 million, says Wagman, and Johnson will expect a hefty pay boost for himself. But he could be worth it if he excels in June. "Eddie Johnson is the only MLS player who could end up playing in England's Premiership, if he has a good World Cup," Wagman says.

Beasley, a marauding midfielder down the left flank, had turned 19 when he went to his first World Cup in Korea. Until then, Beasley was unknown except to coaches and soccer geeks. But his dashing speed and fearlessness earned him a ticket to PSV Eindhoven, another perennial contender in the Dutch first division. Now, a good showing this summer could help elevate him to the elite leagues of England or Spain, according to Wagman.

Bargain talent
It wasn't too long ago that European clubs never came calling in the U.S. But early American pioneers like John Harkes, Tab Ramos, and Eric Wynalda helped to put U.S. soccer on the European map. Soon, clubs recognized Yankee athleticism and determination. Besides, securing U.S. soccer talent has been an attractive bargain. European clubs have purchased U.S. players for relatively cheap salaries compared to the asking prices for top talent in Brazil, Argentina, or even Africa.

Although there are those who still doubt America's prowess in the world's most popular sport, there's no denying Euro clubs got U.S. stars Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, O'Brien, Kasey Keller, Brad Freidel, and Steve Cherundolo for bargain prices compared to the value they've returned to their respective teams over the years. Those players have performed admirably, far exceeding anyone's expectations. They helped to focus European interest on emerging U.S. soccer talent. Now, members of a new generation in American soccer are looking for their break.