Neal Kitson’s Transfer to Northampton Town and the Contradictions of Lower Level Soccer

Amid all the confusion and tattered hopes of transfer deadline day you may have missed that the Rochester Rhinos starting goalkeeper secured a switch to Northampton Town FC.  Northampton Town play in League Two, the fourth tier of English football, probably a fair step up from the quality found in the American third division in which the Rhinos currently play.

But this transfer raises more questions in my mind than just comparing leagues across the pond.  Broadly, how are the structure of clubs and leagues different on either side of the Atlantic?  But more concretely, what does this transfer, and others like it, tell us about the mentality of operating a soccer club in the lower divisions of the United States.

Neal Kitson left the U.S. on Friday January 13 for England on what the Rhinos club website was officially calling an “off-season training” session.  For some reason the club had Kitson publish a somewhat frequent journal of his two weeks in Northampton and reading into the details of this helps elucidate some differences between clubs in the U.S. and abroad.  You can read all of the “Kitson Kronicles” on the Rhinos website here and here.

Patching together some excerpts from different days, I think I can paint an accurate picture of the biggest difference between clubs.  “There was a friendly v Mansfield scheduled for 2 pm.  However, the stadium pitch and the training fields were frozen. Surprisingly, the match went ahead.” “It was a lifting session for about 45 minutes. I don’t think I have done so many push ups, pull ups, lunges, and core work in my life.”  “The first training session was my first session training with the goalkeepers’ coach, Tim Flowers. It was tough at first because I can’t remember the last time I played on mud.  It was hard to get my footing. I was happy with the way I trained in the drills he conducted and Flowers seemed to be happy with the way I performed as well.”

You may think I’m pulling this out of thin air and piecing unrelated statements together to create something completely new, but I think these quotes speak to the professionalization of training in the fourth tier of English football.  The pitch is frozen? Oh well, learn to deal with it.  Your goal mouth is muddy? Adapt to the playing surface.  You’re tired from lifting? Work through it.  The point is that the players and coaches at Northampton Town are all committed to pushing themselves and giving all they can to improve.  It would be easy to call off training because of a frozen field or to skip goalkeeping drills because the box is too muddy.  But instead the coaches drive players on.

This could be that, as Jeff DiVeronica wrote on the 27th players over there naturally “have a better chance to get into England’s bigger leagues.”  That is, clubs in the Premier League and Championship are constantly scouting the lower divisions looking for players with the right set of skill and work ethic.  There are countless instances of players moving up divisions and excelling, like Adam Johnson and Victor Moses.  The same is sadly not the case in the United States.  There is a myth of a limited player pool in America that, combined with MLS roster rules, restricts opportunities for young Americans.

25 year old Kitson, who re-signed with the Rhinos this past fall had clause in his contract which allowed for a free transfer to an MLS or European club before the first of February.  I tried to wrap my head around this.  Here you have probably the second or third most important player to the club and in a contract signed while trying to build a championship winning side, Pat Ercoli and Jesse Myers offered Kitson the chance to walk away from Rochester.  Simply, I had to ask: Why?

The conclusion I reached is that lower level clubs in America are too selfless and, in a sense, humanitarian.  They are philanthropic with their outgoing transfers.  When Carlos Mendes impressed the (then) NY/NJ Metrostars during a U.S. Open Cup match, (and subsequently during a trial) Rochester let him leave for the MLS club without receiving a transfer fee.  In interviews on SoccerAmerica and other internet magazines, youth team and academy coaches talk about how proud they are to give their players the opportunity to pursue their dreams by playing at a higher level.  In a way, that is the romanticized ideal; to have coaches only concerned with the development of their players.  But this also prevents academies from taking advantage of even the most modest transfer fees.

Now, as I have been pondering this transfer and thinking about any deeper implications or telling significance I can’t help but think of FIFA’s Transfer Matching System and the financial ramifications for lower division teams.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that operating a second or third tier soccer club in the United States isn’t exactly a profitable business venture.  Generally the TMS refers only to the sale of youth players, but I think the same principle applies.

In an article on SoccerAmerica, Bayern Munich President Uli Hoeness says, “Our aim is always to invest money for players who can play for Bayern. If sometimes you can sell a player like Mehmet Ekici for 5 million – OK, that’s fantastic, it pays for one full year the academy.”  Translate this to an American lower division context, and the 5 million euro ($6.5 million) budget turns into something under $50,000 (at a conservatively high estimate) and the transfer fee, enforced by TMS, turns into $5,000-10,000 (at a conservatively low estimate).

Another point I took away from this whole ordeal is the appropriation of “professionalization” in American soccer.  Lower level clubs work on shoe-string budgets which can cause organizations to tank after one or two bad years.  This has forced front offices to “professionalize” the business aspects of running a club, such as advertising, fan appreciation days, streamlining merchandise and food vendors, and looking for deals on incoming players.  However this has two negative effects.  Firstly, this prevents clubs from accepting to pay a transfer fee when they can find other players who are free agents or who have clauses in their contracts for a release to a bigger club.  Secondly, the focus on the monetary aspects of operating a soccer club detracts from “professionalizing” the playing aspects.  This means lower division clubs won’t have access to high quality training facilities and won’t have affiliated youth academies.  In fact, Richmond Kickers and Charleston Battery are the only lower division clubs with a team in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League.

The professionalization of off-the-field business has had a detrimental impact towards the on-the-field product and player development of clubs in American soccer.  If Northampton Town FC were willing to bring Neal Kitson into their first team after a couple weeks of training, do you think they would have been wholly deterred from the player if the Rhinos had asked for a $5,000 transfer fee?

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4 thoughts on “Neal Kitson’s Transfer to Northampton Town and the Contradictions of Lower Level Soccer

  1. Nice blog but I feel you have read to much in to some little things about Northamptons training. Tim flowers is a great coach (ex-england keeper) but the facilities are not amazing ,They train on the grounds of a local secondary school (high school). So its not as rosey as you think.

    I feel you might be a little miss led about transfer fees for lower league clubs aswel, for example the most I can remember Northampton reciving is around £400,000 for Mark bunn (Blackburn) and £125,000 for Bradley Johnson (Nowrich).

    Although the big clubs get the big transfer fees, English lower league clubs suffer from the same problems that the money does not filter down from the higher leagues to help develop young players. For example Bradley Johnson was being touted as a £1.5m player just two years after leaving. should northampton have recivied more for the Johnson ? yes ! , but clubs will always be happy to see a player move up the leagues as it is a advert to young talent of what northampton could do for them.

    One saving grace of the English system is that clubs recivie a tribunal fee for players under 23 wether they are under contract or not. Although this is often used by bigger clubs to get young players to run their contacts down so a nominal fee can be paid (much closer to the $50,000 you discuss above) rather than their full transfer value.

    On top of this there are new rules in the pipeline to allow large academies to pluck talent from accademies such as northampton without a fee which could be the death of smaller clubs such as Crewe or Northampton that rely heavily on the sale of their young prospects. Relegeation or the indroduction of this rule could threaten the long term future of a club like northampton.

  2. First of all, thanks for reading and especially thanks for commenting Matthew. I hope you return to read my response and we can have a proper conversation out of this.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know as much about lower level football in England as I should. Clearly the grounds are not spectacular because they don’t have under-soil heating or draining systems which would have prevented freezing or flooding. The point I was trying to stress was the work ethic, which I think is hugely different than that in the States. “The point is that the players and coaches at Northampton Town are all committed to pushing themselves and giving all they can to improve.”

    Quickly to diverge on a tangent, in America we have this odd misconception of what it takes to actually make it big as a professional player. This has developed because of the lack of hierarchical league structure, the fact that second division teams were in fact better than first division teams for the first few years of MLS’s life, and the idea articulated by Bruce Arena and other bigwigs that (paraphrasing b/c I don’t have the source right on head) “the best American player isn’t playing in MLS or USL,” that is he’s just some 19 year old kid playing in a park somewhere. But in England, because of the structure through the top 8 leagues of football system, everyone has a pretty general idea of the talent level in each division. And because of that, an observer can tell when a player is good enough to deserve a transfer to a higher division.
    That isn’t the case in the US, and one of the perverse myths of American soccer is that we have a plethora of great players who could excel if they were simply found. Not that they need to be given a chance to train at proper facilities or refine their raw talents under knowledgeable coaching staff, but just that there are diamonds in the rough waiting to be discovered. The best response to this myth comes from Kasey Keller after the Seattle Sounders played Manchester United in the summer, “Hopefully it’s a learning experience because we put some young guys out on the field in the second half (and) everyone thinks they can play in the Premier League in America. Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, if I just got the break, if I had this or if I had that, that I could be there.’ Actually no you can’t, and you need to learn to figure that out.”
    But back to the matters at hand.

    I do respect the idea of the solidarity payments paid out to Football League teams, even though these could and should be more (we don’t have anything like that in the States). Because, as you mentioned, lower divisions clubs in England are feeling the financial pinch. Clubs don’t have the ability to play chicken with bigger clubs over transfer fees. Is it better to take a guaranteed 125,000 or attempt to hold out for something closer to what the club value the player, when if the club holds out and plays hard ball they could miss out on any amount of money.

    While the EPPP is more in line with a systematic Transfer Matching System supported by FIFA (even if it does undersell players, which is the problem the TMS was proposed to resolve), I agree that the new proposals to “reform” the 90-mile rule to the academy system is going to hurt smaller clubs significantly. The argument that Alex Ferguson made was that it is easier for him to sign a youth player from the continent than it is to sign a kid from the other side of England. He made comparisons to the fact that Barcelona and Real Madrid can sign youth players to their academies from anywhere in Spain. But the truth is that if SAF got his way, the big clubs in England would have a stranglehold on academy talent in a similar way that the big two in Spain do (but not as extreme), which would further remove an important source of revenue for lower division clubs.

    I feel like I have to at least mention that when players from big clubs’ academies don’t come good, they are often released on frees or very small fees to lower division clubs, which creates a cheap and reliable source of players for smaller clubs.

    But I think the point of contention is that we are not comparing the same things and it’s probable that I was not clear enough in my post. When I was comparing facilities, I was comparing lower division clubs in America to MLS clubs. When I was comparing finances, I was comparing the relationship that a team like Rochester has with MLS clubs with the relationship lower division clubs have to those in the Championship and Premier League.

    The main point of the post has little at all to do with Northampton, and should have focused more clearly on the contradictions of the priorities of lower division clubs in America and the appropriation of their limited budgets. I guess many of my misconceptions is that I place Northampton FC at a level higher than that of Rochester when that may not be true. My mistake was lumping Northampton in with MLS clubs.

    • I must say I have limited knowledge of the league structure in the states but have always found he draft sysem abit weird, and also the buying of ‘passed it’ stars. Money would be better spent on ‘grass roots’ football and the leagues lower down the pyramid. As success at an international level would have a greater effect at boosting the american game than the signing of a freddy lundburg or thierry henry.

      For example in England , if we win anything be it Cricket , rugby or football. You will see a vast increase in the popularity and in the amount of young people playing that sport. Which in turn increases your player pool in generations to come.

      I always love it when Northampton pluck some one out of the non-leagues as its an unknown quantity that could turn out to be our very own Charlie austin (burnley) or Ian wright.

      Ian wright was discoverd at TWENTY TWO! playing for a amature team in a park, he then went on to be a legend for Arsenal and England. After being turned down after trials at lower league clubs early in his career. More recently Steve morrison (nowrich) was released by northampton on a free only to be picked up by non league stevenage where he was spotted by championship millwall where he began his rise to the premier league

      These two stories lay testiment to the league system in england, there are 92 proffessional league clubs , most with accademies. The players who dont make the grade at these accademies then get a second chance at the likes of the glen hoddle soccer academy or at one of the hundreds of semi-pro and pro clubs in the non-leagues which are also coverd by a vast scouting network from the 92 league clubs. Chris smalling at man utd was playing for a non league football team just three years ago.

      So yes the system is much better set out for players to get their ‘Break’ so to speak but I do fear for the league structure in England though as there increased talks about a premier league second tier that could spell the end of lower league teams getting their split of the television rights.

      • “Money would be better spent on ‘grass roots’ football and the leagues lower down the pyramid.”
        This is very true, and while US Soccer (our FA) has recently pumped more money and effort into the Development Academy which operates u16 and u18 leagues nationally there is no centralized support for lower leagues. There are still financial problems with the American first tier, as MLS clubs are just now turning out operating profits. And clubs in the second (NASL) and third (USL-PRO) tiers are slowly starting to stabilize, there is a dirty history of teams going belly-up and owners abandoning teams in the American lower divisions. There is progress but the American soccer sports system is something very much unlike the rest of the world. But the size of the player pool isn’t necessarily the problem for the US, this FIFA count (http://www.fifa.com/worldfootball/bigcount/allplayers.html) has America totaling the second highest number of players in the world. The big problem for American youth soccer is convincing the prime athletes to select soccer over American football or baseball or basketball which offer the allure of much high salaries.

        I didn’t know all those details about players but the accessibility of traversing leagues you documented in England makes me quite envious. The plethora of roster restrictions imposed by the MLS creates an ungodly amount of redtape between prospective signings and their destination club.

        I do hope the football league finds a way to maintain its integrity and viability in the face of recent pressures from the Premier League. And thanks for illuminating my understanding of English football.

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