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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Planning for the future: What the Union's contract situation looks like

Jim Curtin, seen in the U.S. Open Cup final Sept. 30,
is already pointing toward the future. (Times Staff/Tom Kelly IV)
As the Philadelphia Union has spent the last two weeks collecting the tattered remnants of a disappointing season, manager Jim Curtin has articulated time and again how vital an offseason this is. That sentiment doesn’t just stem from the fact that the Union, at four consecutive playoff-free seasons, carry the longest active playoff drought in MLS, solidified by Toronto curtailing its seven-year drought Wednesday night.

Part of the logic is rooted in the contract situation for the Union. Perusing the roster, in conversations with players and sources within the organization over the last few weeks, reveals very few players to whom the Union are committed next season. That offers flexibility for the kind of progress that Curtin has professed hope for.

First, a note about MLS contract structures. For all the efforts at transparency in the league (that’s a fun Google search), little has been accomplished in this arena. The MLS Players Union publicizes player salaries, but contract terms remain veiled by the well-worn, institutionalized boilerplate that “per league and club policy, terms were not disclosed.” Union officials are extremely reticent to speak on the record about the matter.

The other thing to remember is that exact contract lengths in MLS are largely illusory, thanks to this line in MLS’ Roster Rules and Regulations under the section titled “Contract Expiration”:

“When a player’s contract expires, the player does not count against the roster or budget of the club in question. Subject to the Re-Entry and Free Agent rules, a club retains the rights to the player indefinitely following the expiration of a contract provided attempts were made to re-sign the player.”
This amounts, essentially, to the reserve clause that caused Major League Baseball’s revolutionary labor upheaval of the 1970s, and there are plenty of sources that excellently expound on that point. What happens after the expiration of the deal is based on age and experience in MLS, and this winter is the first offseason in which free agency is in play for players over the age of 28 with eight or more years of MLS experience.

Most deals are option-laden. They typically include somewhere between one to three guaranteed years followed by one to three options years, varying considerably based on player age, salary, international status, etc. In short, the system is designed to ease the burden of obligation on teams: Options are almost always in the hands of the team, allowing clubs to escape contracts they no longer want or need.

To bring this back to the Union, it means that the club has few long-term guarantees but the potential to pick and choose. The vast majority of the roster is on options for 2016, which allows whoever assumes control of the organization to handpick who returns.

Here’s a partial breakdown of the Union’s contract situation this offseason, cobbled together from media reports and various other sources.
Precious few guys are under guaranteed contracts next season. Maurice Edu signed a “multi-year deal” in January as part of his permanent transfer from Stoke City. Ray Gaddis signed a multi-year extension last summer. The club disclosed this summer that Tranquillo Barnetta’s deal carries an initial guarantee of 18 months through the end of 2016 with mutual options thereafter.

That’s about it for the guaranteed contracts for veterans. As part of the MLS SuperDraft process, the Union exert organizational control over a number of players. Eric Bird, Andre Blake (who remains on a cut-rate, Generation Adidas contract and in all likelihood will through at least the end of next year), Leo Fernandes (who spent 2015 on loan with the New York Cosmos in NASL), Richie Marquez and Dzenan Catic (remember him?) fall under that category. Technical director Chris Albright said before last season that Jimmy McLaughlin and Zach Pfeffer signed new deals that I’d imagine include options (if so, Pfeffer’s stay is certainly more likely than McLaughlin’s given their relative participations).

The two most obvious pieces in the Union lineup for whom decisions loom are Fernando Aristeguieta and Steven Vitoria. Both are on loan for one year from their clubs, FC Nantes in France and Benfica in Portugal, respectively. The framework of their deals, as is standard operating procedure, contains purchase clauses that stipulate transfer fees and salaries. Neither Vitoria (who has been limited to 17 games) nor Aristeguieta (five goals in 19 games, including 14 starts) have likely done enough trigger those premium fees. The possibility exists that they could be landed outside of the deals, but that would require both teams coming to different (read: cheaper for the Union) terms. Of the two, given Vitoria’s advanced age and Benfica being a bigger club where he’s less likely to contribute in the 18 months left on his contract than Aristeguieta, the defender is the more likely of the two to be pried away, though that’s just speculation. Here’s Curtin on the matter Wednesday:

“Again, they’ve had some really high highs and some difficult times, too, with injuries and different things. Again, they’re two guys that I still like a lot. Again, these games are important for everybody. It’s not just the certain two guys that we’re looking for, but yeah there will be decisions that need to be made on any player that’s here on a loan, and those discussions will happen after the year. The season is more about the team, and I think the offseason after the Orlando game, that’s when it starts becoming about individuals, and we’ll have those discussions and talks and make the appropriate moves that will make the team better.”

As has been widely whispered, both Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira were brought to the Union in the winter of 2014 on initial two-year deals. Team options exist for a third year on both players. Those options are likely to be picked up unless either of the players expresses a fervent desire to no longer play in MLS. Neither meets the minimum of experience for the Re-Entry process.

Fred, Brian Carroll and Conor Casey were signed in January to what are presumably one-year contracts. Carroll (age 34, 13 years MLS experience) and Casey (34 and nine) would be eligible for free agency. Fred (seven years in MLS) falls just short of free agency. Given their ages, one or more transitioning into a staff that will be forced to expand with the inception of a USL franchise is possible, provided they’re willing to leave their playing days behind.

Sebastien Le Toux is in the final year of his contract, which includes a team option. Here’s where things get fun: Le Toux has played in MLS since 2009, a total of seven seasons. However, he was the first player signed to an MLS contract for Seattle Sounders FC in 2008 when it was announced as an expansion team for 2009. That means that though he played in USL in 2008, he did so under contact with MLS, as reflected in the MLSPU release from that season (pdf). That counts as his eighth year of MLS experience, making the 31-year-old eligible for free agency.

Another fun one is Eric Ayuk, who is technically on loan from Rainbow FC in Cameroon. We know this since we have a copy of the contract. The Union can purchase him for a $200,000 transfer fee, or the possibly exists that MLS could entice Rainbow to extend his loan stint. My understanding is that Rainbow will retain a future share of any transfer fee paid for Ayuk when he eventually moves on from MLS even if there is a permanent transfer.

Who does that leave? It appears that Fabinho is out of contract, meaning his deal in the summer of 2013 would’ve been for two and a half years, pretty standard. Not sure if an option exists. CJ Sapong signed a long-term contract with Sporting Kansas City in 2012; if he has options remaining, 2016 would likely be the last of them, though this could present the club a chance to negotiate a new pact. Andrew Wenger has an option year remaining, which would be his fifth since being drafted No. 1 overall in the 2012 SuperDraft. His situation is complicated by his graduation from Generation Adidas reportedly before the trade to the Union in April 2014. The team is likely in an option year with Michael Lahoud, as well.

Austin Berry, who has spent the year on loan in South Korea, is at the end of his fourth season since being drafted. With four years representing the standard for rookie contracts, you’d expect Zac MacMath to be near or at the end of his deal, though he’s another Generation Adidas grad from 2012. MacMath would be eligible for re-entry if the Union don’t possess an option

Like Berry and Wenger, Warren Creavalle and Antoine Hoppenot are at the end of their fourth professional seasons. Danny Cruz is another one complicated by GA status, from which he graduated after 2012 before being traded from Houston to D.C. United. I’d imagine he’s no longer on his rookie deal seven seasons into his career, though he’s still three years from free agency given the age 28 floor. A one-year deal with team options would’ve been typical for someone in John McCarthy’s position.

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