Most professional athletes are overpaid, overindulged and overly worshiped, not to mention overbearing. Everywhere that is, except in the Major Soccer League.
The professional athletes in the MSL get underpaid and abused for playing in an underappreciated game. They also get to give up a lot of things the everyday working stiff takes for granted: holidays, pay raises, vacations, a steady place to call home.
While salaries in other sports have escalated, American indoor soccer salaries have plummeted. Players who once earned as much as $150,000 now have an average salary of $31,800. What once was an MSL team salary cap of $1,275,000 has been trimmed to $550,000, or roughly $100,000 less than Bob Melvin gets paid to be the Orioles' backup catcher.
"It is very difficult being a pro athlete in this league," said the Blast's new forward Rod Castro, 26, who with his wife Dianna has moved here from San Diego. "A lot of people look down on us as second-rate or third-rate players because we're not paid like other pro athletes. But they don't understand . . . we're in a major-league sport that can't make it financially."
That Melvin makes more than the entire Blast team is only the start of it.
To put it in perspective, Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken's $2.47 million salary could pay all 54 players on four MSL clubs.
The MSL's top salary of $60,000 is $871,000 less than the average NBA player's salary; $550,000 -- the MSL team salary cap -- buys the 12th man.
Boston pitcher Roger Clemens, who earns $5 million, makes the MSL cap in four starts; the league's average salary in four pitches.
"I don't like to think of our salary in relation to other pro athletes," admitted Castro. "I like to think of our salaries in terms of what everyday people make. In those terms, we're not doing so badly."
But said another player, who asked not to be identified: "If I play until I'm 75, I might have enough in the bank to live on."
There is no retirement pay in the MSL. But the players still sign their autographs for free.
Even Doug Neely, who is single and in his fifth year in the league, says he thinks the last salary cap cut has to be the last one.
"The cap has been lowered every year since I came into the league," said Neely, 26. "I don't have a lot of responsibilities. I don't have a family to support. In the offseason, I still live at home with my parents. But a lot of other guys aren't in my situation and I know it is difficult for them."
All-Star defender Iain Fraser and his wife Denise had a three-bedroom home in Kansas City and Denise also had a very good job with a Kansas City health club before Iain was signed by the Blast. Now, she'll be job hunting and they'll be paying 30 percent more for a three-bedroom apartment here.
"If she hadn't been willing to leave her job and move," Fraser said, "it would have been a big question in our marriage. But
she'd never do that. She knows this will only last so long."
How long? How long can players put off their futures? Already salary cuts are keeping players closer to their homes, because the incentive to move cross country isn't there.
Still, the game is an obsession with the players.
"The love never runs out," said Blast goalkeeper Cris Vaccaro, who joins the team from Tacoma this season. "But one day, the fun and enjoyment might."
The bottom line that can end an obsession is different for everyone.
Some, like Blast midfielder Billy Ronson, have made a 20-year career out of the game. He, like a number of the older players in the league, live for the game. And if the MSL ever does fold -- or just gets to the point where the players pay the owners -- he'll try to find some other way to make a living in the sport.
"Soccer has given me everything I have, from a new country to a new lifestyle," said Ronson, who paid his own way here from England in 1986 to try out with the Blast. "As uncertain as it is now, I'd do it again. I know the cost of living is going up, while our salaries are going down. But my feeling is, if you don't like it, you get another job."
Life in the MSL is so filled with uncertainties it makes players think twice about everything from buying homes and furniture to whether they should take a summer vacation.
Some players share apartments to save money. With the minimum salary set at $16,000, some can't afford vacations. They work at supplementing their salaries with offseason jobs.
"Some coach soccer and work summer camps," said Loyola graduate Joe Koziol, who works camps and is an assistant coach at Loyola. "Some work as bartenders. It might seem embarrassing, being a pro athlete selling sporting goods or selling beers, but that's the reality of it.
"This is my third year. When I came in it was with high hopes. I
had great aspirations. But I had to wake up and smell the coffee. This league isn't too stable. You just take it day-to-day and enjoy what you've got."
Koziol said a number of his former Loyola teammates, including former Blast defender Joe Barger, have moved on professionally.
"I'm the only one left still playing," said the 26-year-old. "It's weird seeing all of them in business suits while I'm still running around in shorts."
That's another thing, players miss the early march up the corporate business ladder and the substantial raises that can go with it.
Vaccaro, Fraser, Castro, Neely and Koziol are among the lucky players in the MSL. They all have college degrees.
Others aren't so lucky. For them, the fun must be never-ending.
"The way soccer is going in this country, young players in college should definitely finish their education," said Vaccaro, whose salary has dropped nearly 40 percent over his 12-year career. "It's very important with the instability in this league to have something to fall back on."
The salary game
Sport Avg. salary NBA .. .. .. .$900,000 Baseball .. ..$891,188 NFL .. .. .. .$361,000 NHL .. .. .. .$254,000 MSL .. .. .. ..$31,800