Eric Brunner
The plight of the developmental player
May 8, 2008

At the 2008 MLS SuperDraft, Metro made Ohio State defender Eric Brunner their top choice, 16th overall. The youngster was heralded by Juan Carlos Osorio: a versatile defender who was good in the air; he was paraded as a steal. Five games into the season, Brunner is yet to play a minute. He might never play one for Metro.

Why? Because Metro signed former Toronto defender Andrew Boyens. Boyens, a first-round draft pick last year, did not distinguish himself on last year's horrible Toronto team. However, Osorio saw enough in the New Zealander to sign him and give him a senior contract. Now, at this point, we don't know if Boyens is a better player than Brunner. And that matters directly, because Boyens' senior contract knocked Brunner down to the developmental roster.

MLS's 28-man rosters contain two major designations: senior players and developmental players. The 18 senior players have a minimum salary of $33,000, not exactly a huge amount, but nothing you can't live on. The 10 developmental players, once you get past the Generation Adidas signees, make either $17,700 or $12,900. Live off that? Good luck in the Metro area.

Now, MLS's theory is that the developmental players are interns, not full-time players. They are encouraged to try to make the big roster. Sometimes it happens, like with DC's Troy Perkins, or Kansas City's Davy Arnaud, or Metro's own Seth Stammler. More often that not, the player leaves the league, not able to sustain himself with the miserable salary MLS provides. One such player is Sal Caccavale, who scored a goal in his only big-team appearance last year, but just couldn't live off 12 thousand a year. Another is Jordan Cila, a former US youth international who bounced through three MLS teams in three years, scored wherever he went, but could never stick. Another... well, the names are too numerous to mention.

The theory is, of course, that the cream will rise to the top. Those developmental players who are good enough will eventually graduate to the senior roster. Those not good enough will leave MLS altogether. The approach is Darwinian, and faulty. These are human beings we're talking about, not Galapagosian tortoises.

Human beings who are forced to live on what amounts to less than minimum wage. Human beings who, although in theory professional athletes, are often forced to find part-time job to supplement their salaries. Human beings who have no choice but bunk together with three, four, five others just to pay the rent.

Now, one might say that these human beings have a choice. It's their choice to follow the dream and to play professional soccer. They could always give it up and try to use their college education to get a "real" job. Which is exactly what Eric Brunner might be doing at this point.

His choices? Accept the developmental contract, stay with Metro, and try to work his place back to the senior roster, something he supposedly earned already. He could refuse, and try to get a job in the minors or abroad. Or he could give up on his soccer dream. We'll find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, MLS crawls along, with over 50 players each season barely making their ends meet. The collective bargaining agreement is up for next season, and one would hope that MLS and the Players Association will address this issue. The obvious moves would be to increase the size of the senior roster or to increase the salaries of developmental players. Something more drastic would be to institute a system where each team's developmental players would be limited to those from the team's immediate area, at least alleviating housing costs. Or the league could provide some kind of subsidies for housing and food. There are options; they all cost money. But one would think that in the league where one player makes more than 200 of its lowest combined, a solution can be had.

We think that Eric Brunner hopes so.

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