New England Soccer Today

Jones an Overpriced Band-Aid Fix

Photo Credit: Erik Drost

Photo Credit: Erik Drost

Jermaine Jones is a great defensive midfielder coming off a very strong 2014 FIFA World Cup for the U.S. National Team. He’s played in some of the best leagues in the world and has Champions League experience. He’s also not the solution to all that ails the New England Revolution.

That the Kraft Sports Group authorized the Revolution to pursue Jones is a significant indication of intent that the ownership is no longer satisfied with the status quo and is willing to spend – and spend big by MLS standards if they are to get serious in conversations with Jones. The Revolution have lost 9 of their last 10 games and currently seem to be in a never-ending tailspin following an impressive start to the season that culminated with a five game winning streak putting the team in first place. The win streak – thanks in part to a favorable early season schedule that saw the Revolution continually facing teams on short rest, while having no midweek games themselves – papered over some serious question marks the team had and has at striker, defensive midfield, outside midfield, and in goal.

Jones would undoubtedly solve one of those problems.  He could easily become one of the best defensive midfielders in the league and be a huge boost to the Revolution midfield, particularly with Andy Dorman sidelined. After his impressive World Cup, with the right marketing, he could also create an off field buzz the Revolution sorely need.

Neither of those fixes alone is going to win the Revolution an MLS Cup. That’s fine, until you factor in the cost. Jones reportedly turned down a contract from the Chicago Fire, which would’ve seen him return to an area he grew up in, that would have paid him $1.3 million for the remainder of this season, and $2.35 million in 2015 and 2016. Alexi Lalas reported Sunday night on ESPN’s broadcast of the Seattle Sounders hosting the Houston Dynamo that Jones and MLS were still around a million off in salary, according to his sources, likely meaning New England, or any MLS club, would have to pay him upwards of $3 million a year for his services.

In other words, Jones, who turns 33 on November 3rd, isn’t taking any hometown discount to return to the United States. Jones, rather, is seeking the type of premium – arguably overpaid – contracts it took to get Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley to make MLS returns. Sure Dempsey and Bradley got even more, but both  were significantly younger – Dempsey, 30, and Bradley, 26 – and were under contract with two of the top clubs in two of the top leagues in the world in the English Premier League’s Tottenham Hostpur and Italian Serie A’s AS Roma, respectively. Jones had to leave his Bundesliga club, FC Schalke 04, on loan midseason last year to find regular playing time with Besiktas in Turkey and is currently a free agent.

Pre-World Cup, Jones reportedly couldn’t get an MLS team to bite when he was asking for a $2 million a year salary. That he is still without a club this late in the summer and may be considering a move to Qatar, suggests few teams are willing to meet his apparently higher demands following his impressive World Cup now.

Overpaying for a playing isn’t always a bad choice. The Seattle Sounders did it for Dempsey likely, at least in part, because they rightfully felt they were just one player away from being a true contender. Their incredible attendance helped justify it too. Toronto FC did it for Michael Bradley because their on-field product desperately needed a change and they were willing to spend big – on more than one player – to fix it. Toronto also added the likes of Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar, as well as many lesser known players to put their team in the conversation with the best clubs in the league.

While pursuing Jones is a signal of a change of strategy for the Revolution, there is nothing to indicate this means they will join the likes of free spending Seattle, Toronto, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls or newcomers New York City FC.  Those clubs may justify overpaying because overpaying on one player won’t prevent them from spending big on others.

A Better Model

On the other hand, clubs like Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo (outside of this currently disappointing season) are perhaps more realistic models for the Revolution. Those clubs didn’t get to where they are by overspending on any individual players. Salt Lake, with the second best record in MLS, has two modestly paid, but highly influential Designated Players in striker Alvaro Saborio ($453,333 guaranteed this year) and attacking midfielder Javier Morales ($300,000) and just added forward Sebastian Jaime (salary unknown) as their third designated player to complement an already highly successful squad.

Kansas City added Claudio Bieler as a low salaried DP ($225,000) and he scored 10 goals last year, though hasn’t had the same impact this season. They used their other two DP spots to retain U.S. National Team stars Matt Besler ($600,000) and Graham Zusi ($600,000) after successful World Cups.

Houston, while struggling this year, has a quality DP in Oscar Boniek Garcia ($258,742) on the books, 22-year-old young DP Alexander López ($110,000) who has yet to make an impact, and just added U.S. veteran DaMarcus Beasley ($750,000), who, should be noted, is still a few months younger than Jones despite playing in four World Cups.

The Revolution’s experiments with DPs have been unsuccessful thus far. DP number one, Milton Caraglio ($54,000) got less than half a season on loan, scoring three goals and two assists in 12 games, but not doing enough for the club to buy him after the loan. The club next used a DP salary to retain club captain and defensive midfielder Shalrie Joseph ($554,333) in 2012, but age seemed to catch up to Joseph at 33 – as noted, an age Jones is fast approaching – and the deal no longer seemed such a great move with Joseph being traded midseason. Currently, there is Jerry Bengtson ($150,840), who was with the club since mid-2012, failing to find his scoring touch until he was recently loaned to Club Atlético Belgrano in Argentina.

In Need of Some Help

Now, mired in the worst stretch of Jay Heaps young coaching career, the Revolution may be in desperation mode to turn things around. The summer window proved unfruitful for the club with only Bengtson’s exit taking place. The team followed that up by swapping Saer Sene for Andre Akpan and allocation money from the New York Red Bulls. Neither of these moves immediately solves any of the Revolution’s problems, though allocation money and clearing salary cap space could open the door for other moves to do so.

But time is running out. The international transfer window closed August 6th, so the club can no longer add under contract players playing outside of MLS. The roster freeze deadline of September 15 is just under a month away. Free agents available this late in the game are getting slimmer and slimmer. Perhaps just as importantly, the time to adjust and make an impact this late in the season is quickly closing. The Revolution failed to take advantage of what appeared to be a fortuitously placed bye week next to the transfer window to get new players adjusted.

Enter Jones. A player who has made no secret his desire to join MLS, but made equally clear his want of a high salary. No scouting trips required as Jones’ play will almost assuredly make an impact in MLS. He even fits a Revolution need.

What he doesn’t fit is a model of success for a limited budget club in MLS. Not at potentially over $3 million in salary in a league where Graham Zusi, Dom Dwyer, Eric Kronberg and Lawrence Olum (though it looks like he’s being replaced by new signing Jorge Claros, whose salary is unknown) combined make less than seven figures and could fill all the team’s major holes. Not in a league where Osvaldo Alonso and Obafemi Martins, two of the best players in their positions, combine for just over $2 million in salary. And, certainly not in a league where Alvaro Saborio, Javier Morales, Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Ned Grabavoy combined come in around $1.5 million.

Building Long-Term Success

With proper scouting, those players can be found. The Revolution has done a solid job scouting players in college, developing a strong academy and identifying quality players available in MLS. They’ve also done a decent job finding players available on trial – unfortunately, quality players available on trial are rare. Where they’ve struggled is finding high quality, reasonably priced international players like Saborio, Morales, Garcia, Diego Valeri, Fabián Espíndola, Federico Higuaín, Juninho, Marcelo Sarvas, Blas Perez, or Oriol Rosell (recently sold), just to name a few. Or, even lower division U.S. finds like Alonso.

To be successful in MLS on a limited budget, those types of players are needed. Of the contributors on the Revolution  roster, everyone came from within MLS, the college draft or the Revolution’s academy, outside of Charlie Davies, Jose Goncalves and Andy Dorman. Davies and Goncalves were among the rare cases of under contract players being allowed to go on trial before a transfer, while Dorman was a returning former Revolution player. There’s a noticeable absence of non-trialist internationals. Finding way to fix that, whether via investing more in scouting, creating better connections, etc. is vital to the club’s long term success.

Perhaps, it’s too late to go that route this season. The transfer window is closed, options are limited. It didn’t have to be that way, but it’s where the team is now. Jones is available; he’ll help now and may well help the club get to the postseason. If they don’t have any other moves around the corner, that’s about as far as they get.

Next year, and the year after that, they’d  likely still have Jones, who at his age can be expected to start declining soon, on the books at a salary his play may longer be able to justify. He’ll likely be making more than the rest of the roster combined. If the team isn’t ready to continue spending bigger and bigger, it won’t be enough get the elusive MLS Cup.

If the Krafts are ready to spend to get the Revolution to the next level, investing in scouting, finding those international players, paying good, MLS salaries to get them to Foxboro could do far more than investing all that money in a short term patch in Jones.

The Jones Reality

If New England does grab Jones, the strong World Cup performance will be fresh in everyone’s mind, but as good of a player as he is, it’s important to recognize what the team is getting. His temper seems to be in better control, but it’s not long ago he often seemed a red card waiting to happen for club and country. Most notably among those incidents, his apparent seeking out of Marco Reus’ already broken toe to stomp on it back in December 2011, resulting in an eight week ban from the Bundesliga.

Additionally, one should not expect his addition to the midfield to have a huge impact on the Revolution’s 15th ranked passing accuracy (77.2%). As good as he was at the World Cup, he ranked 396th out of 480 players (including goalkeepers) in passing percentage in the World Cup among players with at least two appearances at 71.2%. That’s also the worst of any U.S. field player who saw any action at the World Cup. He also tied for the U.S. lead with two turnovers per game. By comparison, his midfield compatriot Michael Bradley, who took a lot of heat for his notable turnovers, completed 86.1% of his passes and averaged 1.3 turnovers per game. In his last full season in the Bundesliga (12/13), he finished 159th out of 246 qualifying players (including goalkeepers) in passing percentage at 75.6%, despite his team FC Schalke 04 finishing third in the league in that category at 79.8%.

A hardnosed, quality, but certainly not flawless defensive midfielder is what the Revolution would be getting. Jones can help the Revolution now, but without other changes, which his salary may well make harder to make, his addition is unlikely a catalyst for long term improvement.

But in the end, for now, if changes aren’t around the corner, something to create some buzz and salvage a postseason spot may be better than nothing. On the other hand, if New England were miraculously able to combine a Jones move with the return of Juan Agudelo or another quality signing to let them contend immediately, that math might change a bit. Jones alone isn’t enough.


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