But it’s not all fame and adulation. To be an MLS player is to lay claim to a status that combines elements of both NBA superstardom and after-work softball team membership. MLS remains, in many ways, a fledgling experiment. Average attendance, while up substantially from its nadir in 2000, still hovers below 17,000 for a 17-home-game season. Few people watch on TV; ESPN2’s ratings for its MLS coverage dropped over 12 percent between 2009 and 2010 to just 249,000 viewers per game. In major media markets, football, basketball, baseball and often hockey continue to overshadow soccer.
The players no doubt sense their middling status in the American sports hierarchy. The new stadiums have drawn rave reviews, but training facilities can lag well behind. Each day, the Union players hop into a couple vans for the 10-minute ride from the locker room at PPL Park to the Wallingford training site, which, if passable, doesn’t exactly scream professional caliber. One rainy day, a woman from the neighborhood took advantage of practice’s cancellation to give her dogs some exercise on the not-in-use grassy pasture.
And the rookies aren’t exactly paid handsomely, either. The minimum salary for a player in one of first 24 spots on the roster is $42,000. For the remaining six (MLS rosters are capped at 30), that number is $32,600. By contrast, the minimum salary in the NHL this season is $500,000. In the NBA, it’s more than $750,000.
That said, the current contract rules agreed to last spring in the new collective bargaining agreement represent a marked improvement from just a couple years ago. As recently as 2009, a so-called developmental player could make as little as $15,300. The new agreement also won all players full benefits, including health, dental, disability and life insurance coverage, a guaranteed 401(k) contribution from the league and injury protection.
In addition to the low salaries, most young players have virtually no job security. Only players at least 24 years old and with three years of MLS experience—or Generation Adidas signees—have their contracts automatically guaranteed. The result is an extraordinary amount of turnover. Of the Union’s 25 rostered players, just 12 are holdovers from last season.
Some rookies who don’t make the cut at their first club go on to find success elsewhere. But the dream can quickly turn into a fool’s errand. MLS’s history is littered with feel-good stories of promising local talents who didn’t quite make it.
The story of Danny Cepero, the former Penn goalkeeper drafted by the New York Red Bulls in 2007, highlights both the possibilities and pitfalls of chasing the MLS dream. After spending most of the 2008 season on loan with the minor-league Harrisburg City Islanders, a failed drug test by the Red Bulls’ starting keeper in October catapulted Cepero into the lineup.
He couldn’t have asked for a better start. On his debut, a late regular season victory over Columbus, Cepero launched a free kick from deep inside his own half toward the opposition goal. With the aid of a hefty bounce off the Giants Stadium turf, the ball eluded the desperate leap of the Columbus goalie, nestling in the back of the net. Cepero was the first goalkeeper to score an MLS goal.
Things got even better, as Cepero led the Red Bulls to their first championship game. He went on to make 13 regular season appearances the next season.
But 2009 turned out to be a disaster for the Red Bulls, who followed up their second place finish with a bottom-of-the-table showing. The new coaching regime brought in for 2010 cleaned house, and having posted a 2-8-3 record in 2009, Cepero was released. He returned to Harrisburg for the 2010 season, but in an interview last July, he made clear he didn’t see a long-term future for himself in soccer.
“In order to make money at this you have to make a life change and go to Europe. That doesn’t really suit me. I have a girlfriend back in New York. I’m more comfortable in New York rather than moving city to city. And I feel like I’m wasting an Ivy League degree.”
Sure enough, Cepero retired before the 2011 season. He now works as a sales consultant.
When the Union signed Richter in March, the press release advertised his addition to the roster as evidence that, “If you’re a star college soccer player in Philadelphia, you will get an opportunity to play for your city’s professional team.” J.T. Noone, a four-year starter at Temple fit that description, and after joining the Union as a trialist in early 2010, he signed a contract in July. Noone spent most of the season playing for the Union’s now-affiliate Harrisburg City Islanders. He returned to the Union this season for preseason training but was ultimately waived—on the same day Richter signed.
Richter acknowledges the immediate pressure to prove himself but tries not to let it weigh too heavily. “It’s an unsure situation, but it’s a job and that’s the reality of it … the job is playing soccer, and you can’t really ask for anything more than that.”
But it’s not only unheralded debutants like Richter who find themselves under the gun. Some of the league’s most hyped rookies have quickly seen their careers fizzle. Like wunderkind Freddy Adu, who joined D.C. United at 14, accompanied by prophecies of impending stardom. After three-and-a-half disappointing MLS seasons, Adu moved to Europe in 2007. He’s since been shipped around to five different clubs, the current one a Turkish second-division side.
Chris Agorsor is one Union rookie with a lot to prove. The 2008 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year and National Soccer Coaches Association of America Player of the Year his senior year of high school, Agorsor was considered one of the next big things in American soccer, but he struggled through two injury-plagued seasons at the University of Virginia.
Agorsor insists that he enters his professional career with no added burden to make amends for his college disappointment. However, he’s clearly intent on making a strong first impression. Among the rookies, he articulates the clearest sense of his role in the team this season. “I think we’re going to have a fluid rotation, and I see myself contributing, whether starting or otherwise.”
So far, though, none of the seven rookies has seen a minute of action through the team’s first five regular season games, though rookie midfielder Michael Farfan did play all 120 minutes in the Union’s U.S. Open Cup loss to D.C. United two weeks ago. Richter and Pfeffer have yet to make the 18-man match roster, which means watching home games from a box in the stadium and away games on television. Richter is still optimistic that he’ll eventually get his shot, though he’s not eager to embrace life on the fringes. For the Union’s opener in Houston, several of the nonrostered players went to a bar for a watch party, but Richter opted to tune in by himself at home. “I don’t want to be out in public watching the team that I play for. I don’t know. I don’t feel like it’s something you should be doing,” he says.
Less than 24 hours after the first team defeats regional rival New York Red Bulls in Week Four in front of a packed house at PPL Park, the reserve squad makes the 10-minute drive out to Wallingford to take on their Red Bull counterparts. The reserve league, resurrected this season after a two-year hiatus, looks to be where this rookie crop will see most of its game time this season. Six of the seven start against the Red Bull reserves, with only MacMath left on the bench.
Before a smattering of onlookers, Agorsor notches the game winner with 10 minutes left to play. Compared with the first team’s triumph the night before, the reserves’ victory attracts little notice. But for the rookies, still getting their bearings in the rough-and-tumble world of professional soccer, it’s a victory all the same. Richter tweets after the game, “The future is lookin real nice for the Union. Good win today fellas.”
Web head: The Sons Also Rise Web subhead: Philly's most passionate sports fans are nuts about a team that doesn't yet exist. By Steven Wells • Photographs by Michael Persico --> Christ but...
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide