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The MLS Hot Stove: Exodus of top defenders looming

Chad Marshall 1 ( 

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If you were to take a poll asking people who the best defenders in MLS are, the list would include each of the following names:

  • Chad Marshall

  • Michael Parkhurst

  • Bakary Soumare

  • Bobby Boswell

At least three of those names enjoyed career-type seasons while the fourth, Parkhurst, still played at a very high level. Needless to say, these four are easily among the Top 10 defenders in the league.

All four could be gone from MLS this winter.

With Marshall, Parkhurst and Boswell all out of contract, and Soumare drawing some serious interest from overseas, we could have an exodus of top defensive talent like we have never seen before.

Parkhurst appears to be the first to have lined up a move, with the Washington Post suggesting that a deal with a Danish club has already been lined up. Parkhurst's departure has appeared inevitable since he failed to make a transfer move last winter, a reality the Revs must have accepted back when it lined up a move for Costa Rican defender Gabriel Badilla.

Marshall and Boswell are two of the more surprising free agents because the both entered 2008 with plenty of uncertainty surrounding their futures. Marshall was coming off a lost season due to concussions while Boswell was coming off a terrible year at D.C. United that saw him go from 2007 MLS defender of the year to benchwarmer. All Boswell did was get traded to Houston, where he served as the anchor on the stingiest defense in the league. All Marshall did was put together a dream season that saw him win MLS defender of the year and his team, the Columbus Crew, win the MLS Cup title.

The Crew has been working hard to re-sign Marshall, but the allure if big bucks abroad could be too tough to pass up. Boswell seems even less likely to return to the Dynamo, as sources tell me that offers from some quality leagues have already come in.

That leaves us with Soumare, whose second season in MLS was good enough to earn him MLS Best XI honors. It is no surprise that interest has come in for Soumare considering he's a 6-foot-4 beast of a center back who just turned 23 last month and who just happens to hold a French passport. Soumare's team, the Chicago Fire, is wary enough of his impending departure that it has already begun making inquiries with other teams about trading for potential starting central defenders.

What does the potential departure of this defensive quartet mean for MLS? It will certainly make scoring goals a bit easier in 2009, but it will also put more pressure on the league's top young defensive prospects to emerge. First-round pick Andy Iro would be a natural replacement for Marshall, though he is still a raw prospect. The Fire could turn to young Paraguayan defender Lider Marmol, who the club is actually still high on despite his lack of playing time in 2008. Houston would need Patrick Ianni to mature into the player some thought he could be as a one-time U.S. Olympic team prospect.

As a league, MLS will certainly look to replenish the talent pool in what is expected to be a deep 2009 MLS Draft (assuming most of the top underclassmen prospects sign with the league). With Wake Forest central defender Ike Opara and Maryland central defender Omar Gonzalez at the top of Major League Soccer's wish list of potential defensive Generation adidas signings, MLS could have some impact rookie defenders stepping in like MLS rookie of the year Sean Franklin did in 2008.

Ultimately though, the reason for this exodus falls on the inconvenient truth that the MLS salary structure is too small for teams to afford high-priced defenders. There are exceptions, like Jimmy Conrad, but in general defenders find it difficult to get the contracts they desire or deserve, and will more often than not simply play out their initial MLS contracts with an eye toward a bigger European payday. It happened with Carlos Bocanegra, Danny Califf, Clarence Goodson and now could very well happen with the three out-of-contract defenders listed above.

What do you think of the potential departure of the four defenders listed above? Do you see any of them staying in MLS in 2009? Do you think their teams can replace them?

Share your thoughts below.


  1. IVES,

    How much are these players making in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. Is it really that much more then MLS?

    I feel like it is great for MLS when its players go to big leagues, b/c it adds to the leagues credibility… BUT, there is no positive when these players go to lower level Euro leagues. The transfers are most likely small, and if the players eventually make the next step to bigger leagues the MLS will not get the credit for developing them.

    How much does the salary cap need to be raised to stop this, before i put my head into a wall?

  2. These players have very limited earning years and because of the unbelieveably low salaries in MLS, they are forced to go abroad. These are exactly the players MLS needs to keep to be competitive. I think Bobby Boswell is a terrific MLS defender and DC was nuts to get rid of him (and he was dirt cheap to boot) but I don’t ever see him playing MNT so let’s keep him here. Same with someone like Troy Perkins. We leave these guys no options so they land up playing in Tier 2 leagues abroad for the money. MLS will collapse if we continually lose these players and it will do nothing great for the MNT either.

  3. I said it earlier, I just renewed my season tickets just because I truly believe my team (Dynamo) does a good job of staying competetive. If we manage get a stadium will be the talk of the town, I mean there are so many soccer fans around here it’s not even funny. But I can’t Realistically expect my team to do well in the CCL with Wade Barret, Craig Wabael and Patrick Ianni. I love this guys but really lets be real.

  4. Yes, and let’s just keep on expanding. The current rate of exodus PLUS the current rate of expansion should soon equal little or no players leaving. There won’t be any good players left to leave. Seriously, if MLS keeps this up there really won’t be much difference between MLS and the USL.

  5. Yes, these players can be replaced I get that; but with younger and inexperianced talent? Come on guys, outside of MLS how do we really intend on making progress? Defense wins games, see also Italy. I’m just saying……

  6. Same complaint as last winter when the last crop headed to Scandanavia and I think most will agree that the quality of play was better this year than last so I think I’ll save my sky is falling chant for another subject.

    As for the future of the salary cap, anyone expecting Garber or anyone else from the league office to say anything besides ‘no planned changes’ until the CBA is reopened in another year obviously hasn’t negotiated anything since they asked their Daddy for an extra quarter in their allowance.

    Patience people, patience.

  7. This is yet another reason why MLS needs to jack up the cap or eliminate it. What does it say about this league when players are leaving for small clubs in Norway and Denmark? Competitive wages are a must to keep quality players (especially the American ones) here in MLS. As a Fire fan I don’t want Bakary to leave but it’s going to happen and I won’t blame him for leaving.

  8. Sayerville,

    Dunno if Wynne will be leaving quite yet, he hasnt got the defensive attributes to make it overseas quite yet. Granted his second half of his season was fantastic but hes still got alot to learn and has got many years ahead of him. That being said i can see the MLS jumping at the chance to sell him given the chance.

  9. MarkVA – players move leagues all the time… all 4 players are not leaving this season…. Boswell will probably stay (unless offered something enticing)… Baky is definately staying….

    anyhow, its 4 defenders…. baky and boswell are on two of the stingiest defenses in the league…. Parkhurst is replaceable… marshall is a part of the league champs… these players, while vital to the success, will and can be replaced…. at least as a Fire, this isnt the end of the world O.o

  10. this isn’t neccessarily a bad thing if you’re stoked to see some exciting attacking goal scoring soccer. which is a view the real nonsoccer person would share with me

  11. Tim, I’m not saying Boswell won’t staty, but he didn’t extend his contract after the 2006 season specifically so he could keep his European options open. And you should know better than to take any athlete at his word. He will go where ever the best situation for him is, whether its Europe or MLS.

  12. Swabb – i understand your reasonings, but the defensive side of the game is not a weakness of the MLS….

    as a fire fan:

    Soumare leaves, i wouldnt have a problem starting Woolard or even CJ Brown…

    Prideaux leaves (to another MLS side, not abroad 😀 ), i wouldnt have any problem with starting Robinson….

    Marmol didnt have a good showing, but it was one game and the Fire didnt play well either…. he stands a chance at improving his standings….

    heck i even thought Washington did well his few games he played, altho i would say he needs work and is towards the bottom of the depth chart….

  13. I’d rather see MLS get used to selling talent than letting them walk away for free, and I definitely mourn the loss of attacking players more than defenders.

    Why do people take the statements made in public through the press as gospel? Whether it’s players or exec’s, they’re going to say the safe and predictable thing.

  14. If there is one thing MLS can “afford” to lose it’s defending talent. For as long as MLS has been around, they have always had the ability to recycle and replace talent that has left MLS. I don’t see this changing anytime soon, especially if guys like Ike Opara from Wake Forest and Omar Gonzalez from Maryland come out early.

    I wouldn’t be too worried about the defenders as they always seem to get replaced. Now midfielders and strikers?

    That’s definitely a concern…

  15. Also how do we expect to compete in say, CCC and other international comps if our not so great defenders are shipping out and their sub/replacements are even worst? Sometimes I wonder why I’m even a Season ticket holder, I guess I just love futbol enough to give my money away.

    That whole Wade Barret fiasco against NY Red BULL, we all saw that coming from a mile away. Realistically how can we expect to get an invite to play in South American Comps with our defensive player pool? I love my team and MLS but I call it as I see it.

  16. I think the MLS should embrace selling its top players with the hope that they succed. It will only enrich the league with transfer fees, better young talent with a repuation of a top minor league. This would help it grow to the point where they could raise the salary and keep players. But with current structure, if i thought i might have a chance over seas i would rather go somewhere else where i know if play well they will sell me to a better team.

  17. It is understandable that MLS (a 12-year old league) would lose their better players to more established/richer leagues. Who wouldn’t look for a 200% to 300% pay raise.

    What seems crazy to me is that the MLS brass in NYC does not recognize this and capitalize on transfer fees. I know it won’t make MLS seem like a “major league” outfit but, it is reality. So now you have young players refusing to get tied up with the league beyond their first contract so they can test the waters in Europe on a free. If MLS or some of the clubs, did not screw with the players (ie Tewllman, Dempsey), some of these players would renew and stay until they have a good offer.

    Now they leave at the end of their first contract. Whether it is a good idea or not. Hence, scandinavia is the best option. If they do well there they can move to a bigger league. The Scandinavians are more pragmatic.

  18. Carlos – it’s silly to say the Bradley hasn’t given the MLSers a shot. He’s brought in, what, 50+ players? I’m still waiting on my call into camp.

    I’m so with you Swabb.

  19. Carlos, Goodson won player of the year in his league. I think that might have something to do with his inclusion.

    Kebzach – are you arguing for or against lower prices to bring more people to the game? In the absence of a huge TV deal there is little more a club can do other than work on improving attendence to increase it’s profitability. In the MLS’ case higher ticket prices would most certainly have a negative affect on revenue from attendence.

    the Bundesliga is consistantly the best attended league. The ticket prices are also among the lowest. The analogy is not perfect because the USA is not filled with soccer crazed fans as is Germany. But when considering the league is still trying to sell itself to the mainstream, the cost/benefit to the consumer needs to be taken into consideration. What is the most a barely curious fan will pay? Also, in some markets with large low income immigrant populations (a segment of the poppulation the MLS has beenn courting since it’s inception) lower prices would allow them to be brought into the fold as well.

    More people in the stands will also lead to bigger TV deals.

  20. Bosewell, If he leaves it should be for the money and I hope he does not leave for the EPL. Dude is madd slow, you can’t teach speed either you have it or you don’t. HE IS MADD SLOW.

  21. Iro is, to say the least, unimpressive. Raw isn’t the word. I can’t believe he tried to talk up European options around the time he was drafted.

    He is basically out there to head the ball and get smoked by literally anyone who takes him on.

  22. Josh – You say that these moves do no good for USMNT, but Bob Bradley surely disagrees. He obviously favors European players. The recent camp proves it. Clarence Goodson was never in the pool until he went to Europe, and he was recently called into camp over the MLS players discussed in this article. If I were a player, I would want to go to Europe if for no other reason than to give myself a shot at USMNT, at least under its current coach.

  23. Hate to see guys go to Scandinavian leagues that aren’t really any better. And kebzach, I bet it’s going to be an uptick in TV money first and foremost that’ll drive up salaries.

    I’m very curious what “quality leagues” are lined up for Boswell. Great player, I just think he lacks the physical tools to make it in a top league. He’s exactly the kind of guy that MLS should be able to afford to keep. Marshall and Soumare are top prospects, and I hope they get good offers. They are the kind of players that at this stage MLS should be discovering, developing, and selling. Parkhurst, for me, is somewhere in the middle.

  24. The league keeps expanding, yet quality players keep leaving. This league is going to be filled with greater mediocrity soon enough. Depth was already a problem.

  25. Don’t get me wrong. If I’m a young soccer player and Aarhus offers to triple my salary to come play in Denmark for a few years, I’m going.

    My comments were directed more toward MLS and what, in turn, happens to the USMNT.

    Something’s got to be done about our salary cap, as we’re bleeding some very good players to some very average leagues.

    Which, in turn, doesn’t do much good for the USMNT.

    I don’t have the answer. Again, I just wish I could get excited about some of the moves on the table for these guys. Parkhurst to the Danish league? Yipee.

  26. Freud I’m no expert on the economic makeup of the German league but I’m still pretty certain that the teams in that league have many other ways to earn revenue that MLS teams don’t.

    Tv revenue alone would possibly allow a league such as the bund. To have a different pricing focus for tickets.

  27. Interesting that this comes on the heels of Dallas’ management saying that Kenny Cooper can’t be a DP because he’s American, and the DP rule was established to bring veteran foreigners into the league. Seems that MLS has no interest in keeping American talent in the league, but especially not if they play defense. Boswell was named his team’s defender of the year on the league’s best defense, iron man of the team for most minutes, and got the fan vote for team MVP. What kind of offer can he expect from the league? Probably no more than $120K. Yet he can go to almost any league in Europe and probably earn at least 2-3 times that much. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  28. that depends how high kebzach. I always assumed

    1) when Red Bull Arena opens my tickets will go up some

    2) If there is a bump in the salary cap then tickets will also go up

  29. It is what it is. Until the new collective bargaining agreement goes into place, the salary structure will not change. Based on the economic conditions, it’ll be interesting to see which way it goes. More money period, more money with larger rosters (I’m sure the union will be pushing for this one), more allocation exemptions, more gen adidas exemptions, and hopefully not less money. The lure of Europe is strong enough without the pittance of a salary that some players receive.

  30. Kebzach – how about lower ticket prices to put more butts in the seats. Quantity over quality…. 50($) x 100(fans) < 10($) x 1000 (fans). See Bundesliga attendence and ticket prices….

  31. Two points.

    One, Ives I think you should add Marvell Wynne to your list of defenders who are likely gone from MLS over the winter. He’s free after next season so MLS will want to get something for him while they can.

    And with his strong showing for the US in the Olympics it’s no secret there’s interest. And one thing having a pro athlete for a daddy teaches you is to cash in when you’re hot.

    The other point is that MLS just doesn’t value its defenders. Never has.

    Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Jonathan Spector, Frank Simek, Heath Pearce, Neven Subotic – they all started their careers in Europe. So did Greg Berhalter, before MLS started, but he has turned down MLS overtures before because the money wasn’t great. And Cory Gibbs began his career overseas, too.

    Then you see guys like Bocanegra, Ryan Nelsen and Clarence Goodson leaving on free deals because the offers from MLS weren’t as much as they felt they deserved.

    MLS has always put a priority on giving the attackers the bigger salaries and while it’s true no one goes to the stadium just to see a defender, everyone wants to see their team win and it’s a lot easier to do this with better backs and MLS has lost and is losing, a lot of really good ones.

  32. outside of your original “grapevine” post Ives, i havent heard any rumors of interested teams for Baky…. obviously he’s drawing attention, but i dont know if the Fire are really going to depart with him so easily… perhaps after this next season…. but if its Jan, it better be worth it…

  33. Its weird…I haven’t yet read a comment from anyone saying that they won’t mind higher ticket prices in order to keep these guys in the league.

  34. Its not just defenders, but all MLS players.

    MLS’s flawed salary structure and cap have left clubs unable or unwilling to compensate players at their global market values. With the rise in interest in affordable american talent by these foriegn clubs..AND the LACK of urgency in youth development signings…it is clear that MLS is reverting back to the stale 96 philosphy of signing imports and surrounding them with sub pro standard players…and increasing the amount of teams and even further diluting the talent pool.

    We saw this coming 3 years ago when the uptick in marginal and top level MLS players started bypassing the league for obscure scandanavian sides with better paydays.

    Pretty soon i think, absent a major increase in cap space and salary structures, along with a easier academy pipeline the league is going to start looking worse and quality is going to suffer.

  35. MLS is never going to be legit until they can hold on to their mid-level talent. If a player can move to Italy, England, France, Germany, Spain, or a top Euro club fine. But, nobody should be lost to Sweden, Denmark, etc. We need to step up and pay these guys to stay here and help grow the league.

  36. I’m all for our best and brightest heading to Europe. I just wish they would find their way to better leagues. I hate that we lose so many quality players to the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian leagues. No offense to any of them, but in pure soccer terms, are any of them clearly an improvement on MLS? I understand a jump to the Premiership or Serie A is asking a bit too much. But how about the Dutch league? Why not France? Or Portugal?

  37. As a Dynamo fan I sure hope Boswell resigns, though I know how unlikely that is. But I’m not convinced that Ianni should be the starter. I’d like to see Geoff Cameron there. He’s impressed more than Ianni in that spot. Of course, Cameron has impressed at ALL positions on the field.

  38. It was expected, but that is bad news to the Revs. I think we may have to switch to a 4-person backline; parkhurst was able to hold it together. I have a feeling that Lawrentowicz – who is a natural center back – could end up moving back there.

  39. great article. If all these top class defenders truly do leave i hope the league will start to rethink their salary cap regulations. The MLS would do far better by just getting rid of it altogether.


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