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?