Irwin lays out harsh realities of life in soccer outside of MLS

ClintIrwinColoradoRapids3 (ColoradoRapids)

By DAN KARELL

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a player in the lower divisions of soccer in the United States and Canada?

One player who knows exactly what life is like is current Colorado Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin. The 24-year-old Major League Soccer rookie spent a season in 2011 in Canada with Capital City F.C. in Ottawa and spent last season in USL Pro with the Charlotte Eagles, making just three appearances as the team’s backup.

The Elon University product chronicles his time down in the depths of North American professional soccer, revealing how exceedingly difficult it is to improve, develop, and even keep a good standard of living outside of MLS.

“Then there’s the off-season, when your contract doesn’t pay,” Irwin wrote in Pacific Standard. “Most guys coach. At the same time, if you want to move up to the next level, you need to put in the off-season work (hashtag “grind”). In the lower leagues, your season starts in April and is over in September or October. In MLS however, the season begins in January and continues until the end November.

“Players in the minor leagues are perpetually three months behind in development just based on this wrinkle.”

Now making the MLS league minimum, Irwin is more than happy with his situation as a starting goalkeeper. Since replacing the injured Matt Pickens on opening day, Irwin has started each of the Rapids next 21 matches. The Rapids currently sit in second place in the Western Conference, and picked up the Rocky Mountain Cup last Saturday.

What do you think of this story? Did you realize life was this tough for lower-level players? Do you see any changes being made to increase professionalism in all pro leagues?

Share your thoughts below.

This entry was posted in Major League Soccer, MLS- Colorado Rapids, U.S. Soccer. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to Irwin lays out harsh realities of life in soccer outside of MLS

  1. timmytwoshoezzz says:

    It’s honestly no different for players in minor league baseball or small basketball leagues in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. The big money is at the top, but for everyone that makes it, there’s a whole lot that don’t.

    • WK says:

      +1 – was just gonna say this. there’s a reason they tell most guys to ‘get an education’. i do like to hear the stories of bartenders, truck drivers, and school teachers giving it one last shot to live the dream and making it, even if only for a short while.

      • USsoccer100 says:

        you know what, it’s the same in most criminal organizations, mobs and drug gangs. Big money on the top and nothing at the bottom (as the Freakanomics author put it, “if there’s so much money to be made from dealing, why do all dealers live with their mom?”). It’s just the promise of a big payday if you work your way to the top that make so many people sacrafice everything for the organization. It’s a very highly successful system of abusing young people’s over confidence in their own abilities.

        • Bob Saget says:

          I’d say it’s like this in a lot of legit businesses, too. The vast majority on the bottom make crap pay or decent pay while a few at the top (CEOs, partners at law and accounting firms) rake in the cash.

          Massive success for a few at the top and slim pickins for everyone else happens just about everywhere. The disparity is, perhaps, a bit more exaggerated in sports and criminal organizations, but not by much. Look at the disparity in CEO vs underling pay at most major corporations.

    • Tony in Quakeland says:

      I disagree to an extent. Since the minor league baseball teams are owned by major league clubs, there is a structure and direct path for moving up through the ranks. There are also significant differences in pay and conditions between Rookie ball, A, Double A and Triple AA, which are not present in the soccer minors. Scouting and evaluation are a lot more rigorous too, so players know very early if they are on track or if they are just hoping and playing out the string.

      Minor league soccer is ALL a wing and a prayer right now. Unless you happen to be on a team with someone like Waynalda or Preki involved, people who know people, even out performing does not guarantee that you get on anyone’s radar.

      It’s a much, much tougher grind, more uncertain and lower paying than the baseball equivelent.

      • drew11 says:

        MLB owns the players NOT the minor league clubs. Big difference.

        • Tractor says:

          What? As a former player in the Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers organizations, that’s definitely NOT the case. My contract rights were owned by the ChiSox and Brewers, and they paid my salary, not Major League Baseball Even at the major league level, which I could only sniff from afar, MLB does not pay the players.

          • Chris says:

            I think what drew11 meant was that the MLB teams (ChiSox or Brewers in your scenario) owned the players’ contracts and paid their salaries, not the minor league teams (for example, the Charlotte Knights or Nashville Sounds).

            Unlike MLB, MLS is a single-entity league, wherein the league itself owns all players’ contracts (and indeed, technically, all of the teams, with the “team owners” more accurately described as shareholders in the league).

    • JF says:

      yeah no different from baseball. But very different from how successful soccer nations structure their lower leagues. And this is one of the big reasons we are so behind.

  2. Vic says:

    Can’t blame players for retiring and going back to school like Preston Zimmerman.

  3. BayernAtHeart says:

    I think MLS and/or USSF should take a good long look at minor/development leagues in other sports. It seems that MLS fans are focused on developing youth academies, and soccer divisions, and adding pro/rel.

    Perhaps it would be more appropriate to look at the American sports approach of minor leagues (MLB) or a development league (NBA).

    • Chris says:

      Actually, I think that’s precisely what MLS is doing. The youth academies and partnerships with lower-division teams are not heading toward promotion/relegation, as much as many American fans might want that, but rather toward establishing more of a “farm team” setup similar to MLB and NHL. The way SKC and Orlando City have functioned this year is I think a model for how MLS wants this to work. The league has too much invested in the markets where it is established and active to gamble that on a promotion/relegation structure, and while second tier teams can sometimes do well in a tournament like the US Open Cup (although it should be noted that this year all 4 semifinalists are MLS teams), over the course of a season, as this article suggests, the lower division players and teams are at a competitive disadvantage and could be predictably expected to be relegated again each season.

      • BayernAtHeart says:

        It should also be noted that SKC tried to sabotage Orlando City by refusing to allow on-loan players to compete against them in USOC.

        I guess I meant to suggest that MLS seems stuck in the middle. They have not committed to a European model academy system, nor have they committed to an MLB minor league system.

        By the end of the decade I feel there needs to be a firm commitment to the development system choice, so that investments can really be made.

        • Chris says:

          How is that sabotage? SKC was paying the salaries of the on-loan players, not OCFC. That seems to me like a failure on the part of US Soccer not to keep those teams on opposite sides of the bracket and reduce the odds of them facing one another. It would be ethically suspect to have those players playing against their own employers. If they play and OCFC loses, too many people would claim it was fixed or they threw the match.

          • BayernAtHeart says:

            It’s ethically suspect either way. SKC sent those players to OCFC to get as much playing time as possible against better competition than in the reserve league. But they turn around and deny their own players the playing time and quality opposition because they get drawn together, and effectively fix the match in their favor.

            It’s a problem that USSF needs to resolve with some sort of rule if MLS clubs continue to develop affiliations with lower league teams.

            • slowleftarm says:

              It isn’t ethically suspect. Players on loan never play against their parent club because of the obvious conflict of interest. Ultimately, those players are not Orlando players and Orlando has no beef with them having to sit out of the match against SKC.

              • Joe+G says:

                I wouldn’t say “never” — it really depends on the situation. It’s much more like the loaned player will play if the gaining team is spending money for his presence (as opposed to simply a free loan of a body).

                With MLS, the loaned players spend most of their time with their home team and only go to the gaining team for games. It’s a bit hard to balance the conflict.

            • Chris says:

              I agree on that…USSF does need to make a rule about it to avoid future situations of this sort. Not sure what that will be – a team being eliminated due to players on their own payroll playing for the opponent would be a bitter pill to swallow, just as it was rough for OCFC not to be able to utilize Dom Dwyer, who was in scintillating form for them at the time. But you make it sound like SKC cheated, and that’s not really true – they exploited a hole in the rules, but their objection was legitimate.

        • edmondo says:

          I don’t see the issue here. When EPL teams send players on loan to other teams, they often cannot play against the teams that own their contracts if the two means were to meet.

      • JD says:

        also to be noted some MLS teams including mine, Houston Dynamo, but out B-teams for the Open Cup from the opening game.

    • Frank says:

      You mean like the Reserve League and affiliation with minor league teams?

    • bryan says:

      MLS said last week they expect every MLS team to be affiliated or fielding a reserve team in USL Pro by 2015. that will be a fantastic thing for MLS and development at the USL Pro level.

  4. Charles says:

    MLS has the best minor league program in the world, it is called college and with 12,000 people playing in it, it is working very well.

    Somehow bloggers think guys are supposed to go an play for a club rather than go to college though ?
    Even if you get on in MLS development program it doesn’t pay at all.

    • Chris says:

      College soccer is not the same game played in MLS. It uses different rules (unlimited substitutions, down-counting clock, sudden-death overtime for all matches ending in a tie after regulation…) so the transition is not as seamless as you suggest. Academies and development leagues much more closely emulate the professional game, so if that’s what the player aspires to, perhaps he/she is better off there. However, as a Northwestern alum, I think Matt Eliason’s goal in this summer’s Messi & Friends match shows that NCAA players can certainly exhibit a great deal of talent and skill.

      The reason many bloggers may push for a transition away from the college game as the primary feeder into MLS is that there is a longstanding notion that this is part of what has held the US back from becoming one of the top soccer nations in the world, despite multiple reasons (Olympics, etc.) suggesting that the US may be the overall most athletic nation on Earth. But when the soccer strongholds in South America, Europe, etc., utilize academies and put out a steady stream of incredible players, and our college players don’t measure up (at that age), many would like to see a more aggressive approach to develop young talent here.

      • Lost in Space says:

        The issues associated with College Vs. Academies is the Amateur Vs. Professional stipulation. Many want to do away with Pay-to-Play….and have the MLS Academies foot the bill. MLS on the otherhand doesn’t have the deep pockets full of cash to fund academies without locking up player rights (contracts). College rules prohibit the taking of money or signing of contracts for a sport which you are playing in college.
        If academies don’t have rights to players they spend $ developing it doesn’t make a lot of business sence. Once this gets sorted out (expanded home-grown numbers, provisional contracts, etc….) only then will we see the increase/improvement in youth development.
        We’ve come a long way in the past 20 years with player development and improved coaching at the youth levels. But until we address the U-10 through U-15 player development (better coaches, more accessable) we’ll still be a step behind Europe & South America when it comes to player development.

      • Charles says:

        The clock counting down and the golden goal is causing the college transition to be a hard one….wow.

        • Chris says:

          I was illustrating the point that college soccer isn’t the same as pro soccer in variety of ways, so it’s an apples to oranges comparison.

          • Turgid Jacobian says:

            It seems to me that the sub rules and season duration are meaningfully different, while golden goal is at most a second order difference, and downcount an irrelevancy.

            • Dennis says:

              Agreed, My understanding from talking to coaches who are or have been both college coaches and national team coaches, is that the season duration and the limited number and length of off-season practices are a major impediment to player development in college soccer. Unlimited subs does play a role and it is one thing that makes the college games more physical at the expense of skill, than MLS, and evenness in the quality of referees is another reason for the physicality.

    • Tony in Quakeland says:

      College should be part of the equation in American soccer for many reasons, not the least of which is that not everyone develops along the same time line. But if college makes two changes, it could be a huge partner with MLS to the benefit of both.

      One is adopt the same subsitution rules as everyone else. Players are trained to go in, sprint around at top speed for as long as they can…then come in for a rest. That alone hinders development more than any single factor.

      The seocnd is – play more games.

      • JD says:

        the unlimited sub rule does have a caveat. Once the player comes out he cannot go back in until the second half. Or if subbed in the second half they are done. Not the same as the MLS, granted, but there is some strategy for it. The college game is painful to watch to be honest.

    • KingGoogleyEye says:

      What is your measure for NCAA being “the best minor league program in the world.” Best for who: the players, the colleges, or the NCAA? Best in terms of protecting mediocre athletes from dismal failure, or best at producing the highest quality players?

    • JF says:

      College soccer is the best “minor league” system in the world? WTF?

  5. Mike in Missouri says:

    There’s always a reason why the guys who are the best make the most money and guys in the lower divisions shouldn’t be paid as much in the higher divisions. If you’re in the top 1% or .1% of your profession in the world, you deserve to paid as such. So hearing of low paying minor league athletes shouldn’t be unexpected. My boss played D-1 College Baseball. He said that guys who played college baseball typically dropped out of the minors if they hadn’t made it to the bigs in 2 years because the travel, meals, hotels, etc. were so much better at the D1 college level.

    All that being said, there’s 2 things I’d like to see happen instead of the 4 team expansion. I’d like the minimum MLS salary raised (no way a top tier professional athlete should make $35,000) to 60 or 70k. If there’s 10 players on minimum salary on every team, that’s only a 250k raise per team or 5mm overall max.

    I’d also like more infrastructure in place in the lower levels. Stadiums, local tv rights, academies, stability. I think 35k is what ideally someone in the lower levels should make.

    • Joe+G says:

      Of course, one burden many of these players have is repaying college loans, because there aren’t many full scholarships in college soccer.

      • Mike in Missouri says:

        Which is the same problem most of their classmates have with similar paying entry level jobs in the real world.

        You can always get a deferment for a brief period of time as well.

  6. Beto says:

    I hear the same stories from minor leage baseball players. A friend of mine was making $10,000 during the season as a draft pick working next to guys who made that much in a week during spring training. Life isnt easy as an aspiring athlete!

    I dont think raising the mls min salary is the answer, although its something that the league should total do if/when they can. Increasing the min salary will just make clubs that much hesitant on signing an untested player. Right now signing someone like Irwin or Klute from the minors is like adding an intern not an established employee… If it works out sign him to a big deal but if not go back to the pool, not a huge loss.. In fact clubs can sign multiple players keep a few and loan out others for the amount that others wish a single min salary player should make …

    Adding more mls and more importantly nasl/usl teams is the answer! More roster spots means more open jobs. Then when you have more partnerships/loans then you are increasing the amount of quality players and financial flexibility for both the clubs involved in the player loan.

  7. Dave says:

    +1 on the college soccer comment. For the US to truly become a world power, that thought process needs to move to high school soccer. When the average HS coach in soccer approaches the skill and acumen of the average HS football/basketball coach (and has the same number of experienced volunteer assistants), the number of skilled players will boom.

    Jay DeMerit is an interesting case here too. Went to England and was playing essentially semi pro.

  8. Jim says:

    Honestly, can’t say I’m too concerned (from a development standpoint) about the standard of pay and conditions in lower leagues. The formula for finding and nurturing the best players has been established all over the world. We’ve got direct evidence from across a large sample size. The large clubs identify talented players at the youth level, and professionally train them. World class players developing late are EXTREMELY rare. In fact, so rare that it’s always a major story when someone ignored by the academies rises through the lower leagues to the top.
    Yes, players in the lower leagues have my sympathy– that’s a hell of a price to pay for chasing your dreams. But it doesn’t mean the system is broken. It’s in everybody’s best interest (clubs, players and fans) that the academy system continues to become more efficient. The rest will work itself out.

  9. There is a life outside of the MLS. It is the USLPro and the NASL … and beyond this, football leagues around the world. I also think that American players could consider playing in foreign leagues (Europe, Latin America, South Africa, Japan, and other parts of Asia).

    The NASL and the USLPro are growing. However the USSF should encourage local communities to ADOPT the local teams and encourage more local engagement. The USSF should foster the growth of these lower-level teams. There is a gap here in the kind of support teams need from fans and also perhaps a bit more marketing from the federation.

    Canada and the Caribbean could do more. Canada should promote the CFL as a real 3rd Division. The Caribbean nations should ban together to form a Pan-Caribbean Premier League …