Dissecting the Goncalves Situation

Revolution skipper Jose Goncalves is hoping his team can carry the same attitude seen in Houston into Saturday's match against Toronto. (Photo: Kari Heistad/CapturedImages.biz)

Revolution captain Jose Goncalves has left the club in a difficult situation after declaring his discontent recently. (Photo: Kari Heistad/CapturedImages.biz)

Captain Jose Goncalves played a huge role this past season in getting the New England Revolution back into the playoffs for the first time in four years, so there was understandable excitement when the team exercised both his purchase and contract option in late November.  Goncalves’ future appeared to be in New England, at least for 2014.

That is until Goncalves expressed disconent over his contract, along with a desire to play in Europe “very soon,” during a Jan. 19 interview with the blog A Minute in Sports! A week later, upon the start of Revolution preseason camp, Goncalves confirmed with the New England media it was no misprint. Revolution general manager Mike Burns also made clear the team was aware of the situation, while pointing out Goncalves was now under contract with the team for multiple years.

Further details slowly emerged. On Monday, Revolution beat reporter Kyle McCarthy tweeted Goncalves is set to make around $450,000 under his current contract. According to the MLS Players Union, Goncalves had guaranteed compensation from the league of $104,375 in 2013, but that was just the portion of his total salary during the loan, as FC Sion picked up the rest. Goncalves total compensation in 2013 is still unclear, but McCarthy suggested his combined salary was more than the $450,000 he’s set to make this year.

A survey of 2013 salaries reveals the highest paid defender in the league, current Vancouver Whitecaps captain and former U.S. National Team center back and 2010 World Cup starter, Jay DeMerit, had guaranteed compensation of $375,000. Goncalves’ reported 2014 salary would’ve made him the highest paid defender in the league last season by $75,000. Of course Los Angeles Galaxy star center back Omar Gonzalez’s reported $1.5 million salary as a Designated Player changes that this season.

While Gonzalez’s figure is clearly an outlier, other quality MLS defenders’ compensation puts Goncalves’ salary in perspective. U.S. National Team center back Matt Besler ($180,000) and French center back and 2013 MLS Cup MVP Aurélien Collin ($256,250) led the best defense in MLS last season, and took Sporting Kansas City to an MLS Cup Championship, while earning a combined $436,250 — $13,750 less than Goncalves is reportedly set to earn this season.

And while Goncalves may look longingly at Gonzalez’s salary, their situations are incomparable. Gonzalez, now a regular on the U.S. National Team, and a likely starter for the team in the World Cup, had a 2012 loan to German Bundesliga club FC Nürnberg that was cut short by injury and reportedly had interest from clubs in Germany, England and Mexico before the Galaxy paid a premium to keep him. The interest in Gonzalez was understandable. After all, the 25-year-old was a perennial MLS Best XI defender and was impressing on the international stage.

Goncalves, on the other hand, while playing phenomenally in 2013, spent much of the previous two years mired in third and fourth division soccer in Switzerland for FC Sion’s reserve team. Over a season-and-a-half with the club, Goncalves managed just six appearances (four starts) with the first team in the top division. Prior to joining the Revolution, Goncalves hadn’t started a top flight match since Mar. 2012, according to Transfermarkt. His career appeared to be on a steep downward spiral before joining the Revolution. Transfermarkt estimated his valued had dropped from 2 million euros (roughly $2.7 million at today’s exchange rate) in March of 2010, while he was playing at Hearts in Scotland to 350,000 euros (~$480,000) in June of 2012 at Sion – his lowest value since starting his pro career as a 19-year-old in 2004.

A look back

Prior to joining the Revolution, Goncalves was stuck in the roughest patch of his career after he left Hearts in controversial fashion in 2010. Goncalves had been a success at Hearts, and was even on the Portuguese National Team radar in the summer of 2009. He was reportedly the club’s highest paid player with a £12,000-per-week salary (roughly $1 million per year), and was offered an extension that Hearts’ manager Jim Jefferies claimed was “fantastic.” It was an offer even Goncalves’ agent was surprised he wouldn’t sign. But Goncalves apparently made it clear at some point in the winter of 2010 that he wouldn’t re-sign with Hearts, and his manager left him out of the squad because of it for much of the second half of the season.

Goncalves didn’t have a club lined up after his Hearts contract expired, but his reasons for leaving the club gained some clarity when, over a year after leaving the club, he spoke of issues at Hearts’ with unpaid wages.  Goncalves said his next club would likely be in Italy, Spain or Germany and told Transfermarkt that “at the moment, I don´t want to go back to Switzerland. I want to play for a good club in a different country. The Swiss league is not an option.”

Goncalves spent the summer recovering from an injury, but despite speaking of interest from clubs in the world’s top leagues, he remained without a club through the fall before returning to Switzerland to join FC St. Gallen – a club in the midst of a difficult relegation battle. Goncalves wasn’t able to save the team from relegation and a last place finish, and after six months at the club, he opted to invoke a clause to terminate his contract due to the team’s relegation.

The 6-foot-2 defender was then off to fellow Swiss club FC Sion in July of 2011 in what can only be seen as a high-risk move. Sion was under a FIFA-imposed transfer ban at the time for the club signing a player while he was still under contract with his former club back in 2009. The ban meant the club would have to fight a legal battle for Goncalves to play. Goncalves first appeared in a Europa League qualifier against Celtic, as Sion won 3-1 on aggregate, but the results were vacated and Celtic advanced because Sion fielded ineligible players – including Goncalves.

Goncalves – and the other new signings – suffered further suspensions in October due to the club’s transfer ban as the battle played out in the courts. After the suspensions were lifted, Goncalves struggled to break back into the first team, making just one appearance the rest of the season.

Clearly not in the team’s plans the next season, Goncalves played just seven minutes. The team even let him go on trial with the Revolution during the autumn in 2012 – an unusual measure for a player under contract. Goncalves impressed enough for the Revolution to secure a loan deal for the defender in January at an attractive price. If suggestions that Goncalves combined salary in 2013 was greater than the $450,000 his new contract is reportedly worth, FC Sion were picking up nearly 80% of his salary or potentially more during his loan.

Such an arrangement isn’t unheard of for a young player a team is looking to loan out for experience to a club that couldn’t ordinarily afford his salary. But it is highly-unusual for a 27-year-old. If FC Sion was willing to cover around 80% of Goncalves salary for his loan, it certainly shows the team didn’t see him in their future plans and seemingly indicates there were no clubs interested in taking on Goncalves and his salary for more than the $104,375 the Revolution contributed.

Part of the loan agreement included a purchase option, and a contract option that the parties agreed to before the season started. Considering Goncalves had spent the past year and a half playing mostly third and fourth division soccer in Switzerland, and presuming the logical assumption that no club was willing pay more than the $104,375 the Revolution did to keep him on loan for the year was correct, a possible $450,000 contract option would seem a fantastic deal for the player. Certainly nothing short of an amazing year would’ve justified the Revolution picking up a contract option that at the time would’ve made him the highest paid defender in the league.

Goncalves delivered. The Portuguese international earned the captain’s armband, led the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, and earned MLS Defender of the Year in the process. Goncalves had turned his career around, and done enough to become the second-highest paid defender in the league once the Revolution picked up the option.

Going forward

But, somewhere along the way, Goncalves became unhappy with the way things played out. Unsurprisingly, all parties have been tight-lipped on exactly where the breakdown occurred, leaving only speculation: Did the Revolution – given the salary and its cap implications – attempt to negotiate down the reported $450,000 figure before picking up the option, causing Goncalves to feel he was “easy to replace”? Did Goncalves want to negotiate a larger contract, but an agreement couldn’t be reached, and the team picked up the previously-agreed upon option? What were the “promises” Goncalves said the club made?

(Side question: Are unilateral contract options legal? FIFPro – the worldwide players union – says no, but the real answer appears to be something more complicated.)

Further complicating the issue is the timing of the complaints. If his discontent wasn’t known to the club until the same time it broke to the media, the Revolution were left in the unfortunate situation of having passed on the chance to re-acquire Michael Parkhurst, perhaps the best – and certainly most consistent – defender to ever play for the club, and a local product and childhood fan of the team at that. The decision to trade Parkhurst – and his salary reported at “north $300,000” – was undoubtedly influenced by the knowledge that they had Goncalves and his large salary for the near future.

Locking up $750,000+ in salaries in two defenders would be unheard of in MLS, and the team was able to get decent value in the 4th overall SuperDraft pick and a reported $100,000 in allocation money, which may well be used to buy down Goncalves’ salary for cap purposes. But, the whole equation in evaluating this trade changes if the club is left with an unhappy Goncalves, who may now want out.

None of these answers are likely to come anytime soon. What is known is Goncalves is under a contract with the club for multiple years – and a contract that makes him one of the richest defenders in the history of the league. Yet something over the past few months has left him unhappy, and that’s obviously not good news for a club looking to improve on last year’s performance in an Eastern Conference that was undeniably strengthened during the offseason.

If Goncalves’ career has shown anything, it’s that he’s never been short of ambition. For better or worse, he’s switched clubs frequently throughout his career looking for the next challenge, even if that meant taking a few risks along the way. A year ago, he was plying much of his trade in the Swiss third division, about as far as a pro could be from the Portuguese National Team radar. Now, after a year in New England led to a career revival, Goncalves is already talking national team and potentially looking to his next career move.

Are the Revolution willing to pay their big-budget skipper even more? Even if so, would that be enough after a “fantastic” offer from Hearts four years ago couldn’t sway him once he decided he’d wanted a new challenge?

Predicting how this one plays out isn’t easy, but no one wins in a scenario where New England’s captain and highest paid player is unhappy.

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About Sean Donahue

Sean Donahue has been covering the New England Revolution since 2002 for various publications. He has covered four MLS Cups, in addition to covering various international matches, including World Cup Qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He has done freelance work for the AP and ESPN Boston. Sean hosted Revolution Recap, a weekly radio program covering the New England Revolution and U.S. Men's National Team from 2005-2008. He is a member of the North American Soccer Reporters. Sean can be reached at nesoccertoday@gmail.com or followed on twitter @SeanLDonahue