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New England Revolution playing petty game with Lee Nguyen

Saturday 27th January 2018

The New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl again. Head coach Bill Belichick has built a dynasty similar to Manchester United’s. He hasn’t won 28 trophies in 26 years, but when you consider there is only one piece of silverware on offer annually in the NFL, rather than at least four, then five Super Bowls in 18 seasons is proportionate.

Belichick is akin to Fergie in ways beyond a reputation for winning. He holds comparable power within the Patriots organisation, espousing a similar philosophy. With the possible exception of Tom Brady, no player is bigger than the club. Stars have been signed and released as he saw fit, even when performance might have advised the opposite move. Belichick has shown the same ability to adjust tactically according to his personnel. He’s just as surly and taciturn as the Scot, too.

Perhaps the most important trait the pair share is a sense of value. It’s rooted in different motives, but the same nonetheless.

Sir Alex brought up youngsters and rarely splurged on transfers not because he couldn’t. There were few restrictions on his spending before or after the Glazers took over. He spent little because there was no need. SAF could make a squad far better than the sum of its parts.

Belichick can, as well. However, he must be mind the NFL’s hard salary cap. The gridiron boss is forced to let talent go to maintain squad balance in a manner his Scottish counterpart never had to consider.

Major League Soccer’s salary cap isn’t as strict as the NFL’s. It allows its franchises to sign up to three “designated players” for an unlimited salary. Everyone else must fit under an individual and team ceiling. Regardless, the Patriots sister organisation in that competition, the New England Revolution, has a reputation for being just as ruthless with player contracts as the gridiron franchise. The Revs talented midfield playmaker can tell you.

Among all MLS players in the past five seasons, Lee Nguyen ranks fourth in goal involvement. He has scored or assisted on 82. The players above him on the list, Bradley Wright-Phillips (100), Sebastian Giovinco (88), and Diego Valeri (98) are all designated players who make at least three times his $500,000 salary. That’s annual, not weekly, for those of you thinking Alexis Sanchez is said to be making roughly the same with Manchester United when you exchange currencies.

While Nguyen has renegotiated his contract before, he began at the $80,000 league minimum. His current max deal for a non-DP is far below his market value.

The franchise doesn’t care. It refuses to renegotiate again or trade the 31-year-old. After making three trade requests in the off-season, Nguyen has responded by not reporting to pre-season camp. The Revs have publicly stated he is not honouring his contract.

The Vietnamese-American sees it differently.

I hope things can work out in a manner that benefits everyone. I've paid my dues and it gets harder and harder to watch so many players on the Revs and in MLS get rewarded year after year, despite not performing anywhere close to what I have done.

For the past six years, I've given everything to the Revs and done my best to help the club win. I appreciate my time in New England, but I just feel like I need a new challenge at this point in my career.

The situation exposes a critical flaw in Major League Soccer. Designated players rarely come up through the league ranks. Instead, they tend to be international talents from either Europe or South America who command too much value on the global market to sign for the comparative pittance homegrown players receive.

Players such as Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj, who recently scored a brace in the 4-2 shock win that sent Arsenal tumbling out of the FA Cup, are playing in secondary European competitions. Fulham’s Tim Ream and Luca de la Torre, Bolton’s Antonee Robinson, Ipswich Town’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Sunderland’s Lynden Gooch, also compete in the Championship. Not only is the football of greater quality, the wages are far higher. Ask Matt Miazga at Vitesse in the Eredivisie, Terence Boyd at Darmstadt in 2.Bundesliga, Bill Hamid at Midjtylland in the Danish Super League, Joe Corona at America in Liga MX, and many others, as well.

When an MLS club concerns itself with maximising profit, like the Derby side that put in a Premier League appearance in 2007-08 without making any significant squad upgrade, it hinders the league’s development.

New England signed Jermaine Jones as a designated player in 2014. In his first full season, he and Nguyen led the Revs on an MLS Cup run that only faltered at the final hurdle. New England’s fiscal intransigence led to Jones moving to Colorado. Its current DPs are center-half Claude Dielna and holding midfielder Xavier Kouassi. The team traded malcontent striker Kei Kamara, an ill-advised signing to begin with, in December.

Decent defenders are a dime a dozen. New England’s DP policy is killing its title prospects. If the franchise found two or three attacking players to complement Nguyen, the Revs would vault into the MLS Cup picture. New franchise Atlanta United did exactly that with Josef Martinez, Miguel Almiron, and Hector Villalba. Chicago Fire rose out of the MLS basement by inking 2017 Golden Boot winner Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger.

MLS is not the NFL. The Revolution hierarchy must understand it needs a different approach. If not, it should sell or trade its playmaker while he still commands a respectable return.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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