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Misusing MLS as a bargaining chip


Last week, when I heard the news that Ronaldinho had reportedly rejected a massive offer from to join the Los Angeles Galaxy, I nearly choked on my açaí juice. One thought flashed in my head: The odds Ronaldinho is coming to MLS this year are about as good as the odds that Gisele Bündchen will knock on my front door wearing a 1996 Tampa Bay Mutiny No. 15 jersey -- and nothing else.

The whole episode smacked of agent-team gamesmanship. The main source, it seems, for the story that originally broke in the Spanish paper El MundoDeportivo and later on, was Ronnie's agent -- and brother -- the wonderfully named Roberto de Assis. But supposedly Barcelona was interested in the deal, too.

I don't blame them. In the transaction, the Blaugrana would get rid of the world's most expensive reserve. Even better, he would go to America, where he could never come back to haunt the club in La Liga or in the Champions League.

Meanwhile, Ronaldinho supposedly would get roughly the same deal David Beckham got -- $50 million a year. Ronnie's arrangement, however, would reportedly break down differently than Beckham's, split evenly between playing contract and image rights.

And that's where the whole story unraveled my mind. The deal was simply too symmetrical, both in line with Becks' deal and yet way outside the box, too, which said to me that the parties involved don't really understand how MLS operates. The entire episode was perfectly manicured for maximum effect in the European press. (I even got a call from a colleague in Milan who said he heard the news on the radio.)

Furthermore, you'll notice there was never any article or reporting about L.A.'s initial offer. The story only broke when Ronaldinho was going to reject the deal. In doing so, Ronaldinho's representatives were quick to counter that the 28-year-old Brazilian maestro was not done with Europe's top level, and he was holding out for a move to a Champions League-bound club. In short, this was clearly a p.r. stunt for someone to gain leverage.

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Who? Well, in this case, I think both the player and the club, who obviously want to part ways. They figured they would spin this ludicrous yarn, attach it to a club about which most Europeans (read: other European clubs and their officials) don't know many details and hope someone takes the bait. It hasn't happened yet, but it probably will, because some team will panic and jump at Ronnie before he sails off to the New World.

It all got me thinking about one of the unintended consequences of MLS' infamous Beckham Rule. With the announcement in early '07 that Mr. Posh had signed what could eventually be a $250 million contract, the ears of every high-priced star in Europe -- and their agents -- perked up. They saw they had another destination, a little outside the box, but obviously worth every penny. They also saw another legitimate bargaining chip, because the agents knew that most European clubs misunderstood the MLS rules about DPs, salary caps, single-entity, etc.

"Signing David gave us a new level of credibility and agents have looked to use this to their benefit," Galaxy president Alexi Lalas told me. (Full disclosure, he is my brother.) "Leverage is everything when negotiating, but most of the stories linking players to the Galaxy are complete nonsense."

Before the recent Ronnie rumors, there was the Thierry Henry rumor and the Maciej Zurawski rumor and the Lilian Thuram rumor. None of them had much validity.

Patrick McCabe, a player agent with First Wave Sports, which represents the likes of Chad Barrett, Ronnie O'Brien and Nate Jaqua, tells me that using MLS' new DP money is indeed a smart negotiating tactic for Europeans, but only for players at the top echelon.

The marquee names can toss Beckham numbers out there and be taken seriously, but must European club officials know enough to know that MLS isn't going to pay millions for a player like PaulDickov, a recently released Manchester City player who reportedly received interest from New York and Toronto.

The DP rule has been very good for MLS. It's brought some international prestige and plenty of talent. (Did you see Marcelo Gallardo orchestrate the D.C. United midfield on Sunday afternoon?) What goes with that is the endless chatter spin-game that I sometimes think drives the entire world transfer market. Rumors often turn into reality. That MLS teams are now part of that conversation says a lot.

But the Galaxy's Lalas has some advice for any European club that is nervous about losing out on a player like Ronaldinho. "If clubs would simply call me," he said, "I could probably save them a lot of time and money."