Manic in the Year Zero; or, What Hurts Most is the Lack of Respect

Posted on December 2, 2011 5:25 pm

Holy mother of pearl – this was the sixth annual expansion draft.  And the seventh in eight years.  I don’t THINK there’s going to be one next year, but that’s got to be some kind of record.

I should, and I wish I could, just link Zach Woolsey’s Pulitzer-worthy summation of the Chimpact Affair:

Jesse Marsch, the coach, is a bit of an asshole.

*Battlestar Galactica slow clap*

It’s very, very easy to believe the speculation that this is personal, and while I greatly enjoy the rare times when American players feud with each other almost as much as I enjoy criticizing Brian Ching, I think it’s only fair we do it based on what he’s said publicly.  Before the Expansion draft, Ching went into the most detail with Jose de Jesus Ortiz at the Houston Chronicle:

“I feel like my home is here now,” said Ching…. “This is where I want to be – with the Dynamo. I would want to play in the new stadium, and if I can’t, it would hurt a lot.

“But if (the Impact) pick me, I’ll be at the new stadium as part of the front office, not as a player.”
….
“I just know (Marsch) as a competitor on the field. He’s a competitive guy. He’s a guy that’s been successful in the league. I have nothing against him, but I wouldn’t play for him.”
….
“The franchise is my home,” Ching said. “My identity is with this franchise. I don’t see myself playing for any other franchise in MLS. My loyalties are here.

“If (the Impact) pick me, obviously I’m going to retire and work in the (Dynamo) front office. It would hurt me deeply, because I want to be a part of the new stadium. I’ve never been (with) a franchise that had its own stadium. I’ve been in the league for 11 years now, and I would like to be a part of a place that I could call home, I guess.”

Even by American sports standards, personal tiffs in MLS tend to stay out of the public eye.  Today’s opponent may be tomorrow’s teammate, after all, so the culture does not encourage the holding and nursing of grudges.  “I wouldn’t play for him,” then, is seen as a studied, deliberate, and personal insult.

However plausible a Ching-Marsch enmity might be, though, that was only one part of a sentence in a sea of pro-Houston oratory.  I thought it was unwise for Ching to draw attention to himself like this, but if the idea was to become a permanent and beloved demigod amongst Dynamo faithful, well done.

But it was strategically silly.  Ching could have said the same things after Marsch had picked him.  James Riley was very gracious on his way out of Seattle, and no one in Sounderland seems to begrudge him wanting to continue playing soccer for money.  Only the very dimmest Dynamo fan would have felt betrayed by Ching suiting up for an expansion team at the end of his career.

It’s not unheard of for a player to retire rather than report to a new team – Jackie Robinson is probably the most legendary example, although almost no one remembers today that the Brooklyn Dodgers were dumb enough to trade Robinson.  It’s much more common for players to stay one or two years too long, which actually makes Ching’s threat quite refreshing…assuming he sticks to his guns.

Ken Hoffman of the Houston Chronicle was nice enough to write back to me and clarify Ching’s contract situation – forgive me if all of you knew this already – but Ching’s contract was not guaranteed until he started 19 games this season.  MLS Cup was that 19th game, and so Ching now has $412,500 reasons not to retire.  And the Impact had a similar number of reasons not to take him.

Ortiz had some fantastic advice for Ching – report to Camp Marsch, then have season-ending surgery.  I would do it, but then, that’s why Brian Ching plays soccer and I just blither about it.  I’ve been comparatively unimpressed with Ching’s class over the years, what with him taking credit for MLS Cup wins he had nothing to do with, but he’s never struck me as the kind of player who would even consider half-assing it.

And there’s the issue of Ching having said in public he would never play for Marsch.  What if, heaven forbid, Ching did report, did apply himself as a professional, and did have a legitimate injury?  No one in the world would believe him.  The cloud over his legacy would not be one of those soft and fluffy cotton ball ones.  And while it’s hard to believe a nice guy like Joey Saputo would refuse to pay his salary…oh, wait, no, it’s actually very easy to believe.

The Dynamo put Ching, and themselves, in this position by trying to game the system.  Houston has taken its share of abuse this past week, almost all of it deserved – the rapid re-signing of Bobby Boswell does argue against the idea that Boswell and not Ching should have been exposed, so Chris Canetti probably made the smart move there.

But Montreal had the right – nay, the duty – to make the most effective picks possible.  Ching and the Dynamo were basically living out the Mr. Mike version of Uncle Remus, where the animals respect Br’er Rabbit’s wishes and skin him alive.

Like Salt Lake did with Jason Kreis in the Toronto expansion draft, Houston gambled and lost.  So make a deal or don’t make a deal, Dyanmo, but quit complaining about it.  It’s unseemly in nearly-champions.  You don’t hear Kansas City whining about having to reacquire Seth Sinovic, after all.

In Houston’s meager defense, exposing the high-salaried icon is a long-standing tradition in MLS expansion drafts.  The Revolution left Joe-Max Moore out to dangle in 2004.  The Quakes dangled Ronnie Ekelund that same year.  In 2006, Toronto could have picked Nick Rimando instead of Kreis, and picked up Cobi Jones and Stuart Holden while they were at it.  The Sounders turned down Eddie Gaven and Ben Olsen.  The Union could have picked Chris Wondolowski in 2009, which would have haplessified the Quakes even worse than they are today.  The record for most club icons exposed in one year has to belong to Kansas City – the Wizards offered up both Tony Meola AND Preki in 2004.

Houston thought they could get away with similar shenanigans, and were incorrect.  Or, Jesse Marsch thought he could mess with Brian Ching, and was incorrect.  We’ll see how this story plays out, but no one involved was forced into this situation.

I doubt Montreal’s maneuverings will end up being the most life-altering manipualtions in the history of the expansion draft.  It’s hard to see anyone beating the day that Bob Bradley demanded that the Galaxy include Chris Armas to complete a Jorge Campos for Kevin Hartman and Danny Pena deal.  Had Bradley not held Hartman and Pena hostage, the Fire probably would have folded, and Bradley would be famous for having made the worst trade in MLS history.

Expansion drafts, like so much of Major League Soccer, treat grown men like action figures.  And fans forget that it’s no small thing to uproot your life and your livelihood for an uncertain future thousands of miles away in a different country – especially for the middle class salaries MLS players get.   Ching makes a much worse example of this than poor James Riley, who has been exposed all but one year since 2006, and picked three separate times.  It’s very hard to feel sympathetic for someone whose absolute, utter worst case scenario is to play soccer in Montreal for over half a million loonies, or whatever they call the money with the old English broad on it.

But if Brian Ching wants to choose who he wants to work for, hey, slavery’s been illegal in Canada since 1833.  Since we’re going to do this anywhere from two to four or more times, it would be nice to find a way to find a process that treats players like people (or even employees).  Real life Jesse Marsch should not be more callous than me running my West Bromwich Babylon fantasy team.

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