Signings worry soccer coaches Underclassmen give up eligibility for MLS

January 27, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

American pro soccer's aggressive signing of top-flight college underclassmen broadened yesterday and hit, among other campuses, the University of Maryland for the second time in two weeks.

Maryland, which lost last fall's starting goalkeeper, sophomore Andy Kirk, to Major League Soccer on Jan. 14, also has lost standout junior midfielder Judah Cooks, the league announced yesterday. Both were among seven recently signed players MLS either identified or assigned to MLS teams yesterday.

Another was Columbia's Brian West (Centennial), one of three University of Virginia starters to turn pro recently. West, a sophomore, signed last week and was assigned immediately to the Columbus Crew.

MLS deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati, who handles player transactions for all 12 league teams, said yesterday more signings will occur by early February. As many as a dozen players could be involved.

The increased signings are raising concerns among college coaches, as well as fans, about MLS' intent in luring players away from college. Coaches in the soccer-strong Atlantic Coast Conference, which has been hard hit, are meeting tomorrow about the subject. The National Soccer Coaches Association has a committee that has talked with MLS.

"I have very mixed feelings," Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said yesterday. "We're all grateful that MLS is here, but I would like to see better communication with the league about their intentions."

A pro pull in soccer is new, because until MLS' formation in 1996, the game's top American level had been disorganized and largely semipro since the 1970s. College-age players had to get pro experience abroad, which few pursued; college graduates were too old to begin pro careers with foreign teams.

Gulati said that all 19 players who have forgone their college eligibility to turn pro with MLS, which begins its third season in March, have initiated contact with the league, either themselves or through coaches or parents.

"We are not contacting individual players," he said.

He said, though, that league officials explained the program to last year's Under-20 national team. Those players are particularly relevant now, because they will form the U.S. team for the 2000 Olympics, a competition of Under-23 players, most of whom in other countries have been pros for four or five years.

Cirovski said he did not want to dispute Gulati, but that, in fact, key players, all of whom represent the United States on various U.S. Soccer Federation-backed age-group teams, are "being recruited heavily every time they go to a national team camp."

Cirovski said he was happy that his two players can pursue their professional dreams, but, like many other coaches, he still has misgivings. Low pay is one, he said. Another is the fact that many P-40 players will not ultimately succeed as pros despite having given up key education years to try.

"For some players, though, it's the right thing," he said.

The pro signings are being made under a program called Project 40 that MLS and the U.S. federation set up last year to increase the number of young pros capable of winning internationally, all within the stated goal of the United States winning the World Cup by 2010.

So-called "P-40" players surrender their college eligibility, are paid $24,000, MLS' minimum annual salary, get a Nike endorsement contract worth a reported $7,000, and as much as $37,500 for continuing their undergraduate college education within 10 years.

The college money comes from the U.S. Soccer Foundation, funded by profits from the country's being host to the 1994 World Cup final round. No money set aside for college last year has been used.

P-40 players do not count against their MLS teams' salary cap or roster limits. This season, they will practice Mondays through Thursdays with their MLS clubs, and then, if not involved in that team's weekend game, fly out to play a 27-game schedule on a new P-40 team competing in the A-League, pro soccer's top minor league. Players also work out several months a year with pro clubs abroad.

MLS guarantees the education money, Gulati said, whether the player makes it as a pro or is cut shortly after signing.

But in soccer terms, Gulati continued, MLS' commitment "lasts exactly 15 seconds. By that I mean, they've got to fight for spots. They can be waived at any time. That's intentional, the way it is done around the world."

Cooks, 21, who is from Bethesda, was assigned to MLS champion D.C. United, which a few days ago also got Ben Olsen, a University of Virginia forward who was 1997's College Player of the Year, under the program.

Ex-Terps goalkeeper Kirk, who is from Milwaukee, was assigned yesterday to MLS' San Jose Clash.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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