I’ve asked Lyle Yorks for an interview several times to no avail. Agents aren’t known for talking to press and short of Scott Boras are famous for the low profiles they keep in the shadowy underbelly of professional sports. So when Michael Wheeler appeared on Twitter, giving up information not just on client movement but personal research on the game, it struck me as odd.
And what with the MLS combine and the Superduperdraft coming up in the next week, it’s a perfect time to pick the brain of the one agent–a relative newcomer to the business but not the sport–who would not only be willing to talk but hopefully have something more to say than the usual fair.
TIAS: So MAE Agency is just you alone at this point, correct?
MW: It’s just me officially, but as anyone in the business will tell you, I’ve got a lot of partners that I help out, and they help me out.
We traded a few emails and the reason I was intrigued to speak to you was that beyond your presence on Twitter being unusual for an agent, you also were giving information about not just your clients but also news and research you had done. The percent of MLS draftees still in MLS out of the various rounds comes to mind.
The information that you read about and hear about is so often misinformed, so I wanted to give my little pieces of good info, especially for young American soccer players that come up in the US and really don’t understand how the world market of football works. Of course I would love to have a ton of clients like Motzkin or Waxman, but that is not really my goal to put a whole bunch of players out there to kind of make a difficult margin given low MLS salaries. My goal is to get those diamonds in the rough and challenge them to challenge themselves. Those who want to go abroad, I can make that happen for them.
But getting back to your main question, I just saw an opportunity to market myself and also try to steer the conversations out there towards a more educated and informed level. Obviously being an agent all of your information is very valuable, so you don’t want to give up everything, but to give some of it I think is healthy. I really want to try to educate a lot of young players that are out there. I feel like a lot of the parents and kids, they believe college and the whole youth experience here in the US can prepare them for a pro career in the MLS. Well, the stats you mentioned I posted on Twitter about the MLS draft of last year. If you look at it, less than 1 out of 2 players that were drafted are still in MLS. So that is telling you that college is really not preparatory for a pro career just within MLS, much less abroad. They need to face a reality of #1-just how difficult it is to be a pro. A lot of the American parents and kids see the NBA draft and the NFL draft, and they want to equate the MLS draft to those more prominent leagues, and its just not the case. The talent level is not at that level. And when you take a college graduate who is going to try and compete against 9 forieginers who are on a MLS team, it’s a huge disparity between foreign pros and a recent college graduate, even if its North Carolina or Wake Forest.
What’s your advice to your clients given that?
I just had a meeting with a client last night that is heading to the combine in Fort Lauderdale. He’s a senior, doesn’t have a MLS contract.
Can I get the name?
Michael Seamon from Villanova. Very good Big East player, but not from a traditional soccer power. He’s already starting off the radar. I told him that he needs to come in to the combine with the realization that if you are not a Generation Adidas player or one of these seniors who already has a MLS deal ready before the draft, then you need to have some fallback options, whether that is a league elsewhere in the world or a USL team, some of which pay competitive salaries with MLS and have good foreign affiliates which could open up more doors. They need to look to see if they have foreign ancestry, any background that could help obtain visas and work permits. If you can get that localized status, well now you don’t have to be 10 times as good as those kids to take a foreigner roster spot on that European team. And then there are other countries where the work permit laws are not as strict as England or Spain.
But it’s a long conversation and they need to know all of these options. Just last year, a kid who went in the 2nd round of the draft – well, only 1 in 3 is still around in MLS. If you told me that MLS is putting so few kids into the league from the draft, even ones that are chosen in the 2nd round – that’s an eye-opening stat.
It is – and has me wondering those percentages for other leagues. With minor league structures for most other leagues those numbers may not be comparable.
With the low MLS salaries, Don Garber has even equated these developmental salaries in his league to those of minor league baseball. Well, that is true, but the reality is that we don’t have that many spots for these players who want to be pros and could be, but need time to develop. We no longer have the developmental league. Roster spots have been cut down from 28 to 24. They increase the foreign roster spots, and everybody is going to take those additional two foreigners. And that leaves four developmental spots on each MLS team. That’s tight competition if you are just trying to break in.
Makes it harder to break into the agent game too I would guess. I’ve spoken with numerous would-be agents trying their hand at it, and all of them lament the low salaries and how you’d need 25 MLS players to equal the financial worth of, say, one NBA player.
Really the way agents worldwide make money is through transfer fees. But here the economic rights are all owned by MLS. So that is why if you are going to try to make it here and just deal exclusively with MLS teams or HQ then you need to send a lot of players to MLS and get them signed. Its almost just a buck shot affect. You could have 50 MLS players for that one NBA player. It’s a tough business.
Give me an example from your client list if you can.
Leonel St. Preux. He is at Hanoi FC now, used to play for the Minnesota Thunder. He’ll now quintuple his salary in Vietnam.
Lee Nguyen has been playing over there as well – is Vietnam a good destination for American players?
I wouldn’t really tell a lot of guys that Vietnam would be a #1 destination for footballers, but if you want to make a lot of money in a short amount of time, they are offering some pretty big contracts over there. Instead of taking the MLS minimum or maybe $50,000, a player can easily double if not triple that in a place like Vietnam.
I love the global options that soccer provides, but clearly that’s not for every player. How do you judge personality and personal background when looking for the right place for a player?
A lot of these players have never been abroad, certainly never lived abroad, and it’s a huge cultural shift. They need to be able to adapt to it and basically trust the advice of their agent and their local handlers when those decisions come up. There are countless cases of that going wrong or players not being ready. And if you don’t have people on the ground helping you out, it can become a nightmare.
What are your biggest pieces of advice or myths that you try to instill in players?
One is that college is good prep for a pro career. If you look at the numbers, college is not really good for a pro career. Both pro and colleges coaches I talk to will admit it but they say, “That’s the system we have.” And I’m not bashing the college system, but the players just need to realize it is a huge step from college to pro.
And you have that exact experience as a player too, which has to help when you tell them this.
Oh yeah, and I tried to challenge myself abroad in France, which was even more difficult. I had no one guiding me but had a few contacts and decided to pursue it by deferring a year from law school. It was much more about the cultural experience for me than really trying to become a professional player. I wasn’t delusional in that respect.
Second myth would be about all the chatter you hear on the blogs about certain young players coming up. That they have foreign teams interested in them. It’s pretty hilarious to read some of the teams that these young players are associated with. Anyone who has done any traveling abroad or seen players abroad, they know the talent that is out there and what some of these foreign teams are looking for. It’s really tough to hook up with a Big Four English team or Real Madrid and Barcelona. Or if you follow the Freddy Adu experience, even a Benfica. Benfica every year can go down to Brazil and take the four best players in Brazil and bring them over. Or Argentina, which is what Porto does. It’s hard competition and believe it or not few young American players really get that.
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