In January, a little-known Irish player went up against Robin van Persie and James Rodriguez for the coveted Puskas Award.
Her name was Stephanie Roche, and she came mighty close to making history.
A crowd of just under a hundred people watched her goal live at a ground in the south-east of Ireland, but millions viewed the strike online. A third of voters felt that her volley was the best of the three shortlisted shots, but she lost out to James Rodriguez by a mere nine percent.
Predictably, that wasn’t the last the world would hear of Roche. Having come second in the Puskas push, she joined Barack Obama at the White House for St. Patrick’s Day. Later, she signed a two-year contract with the Houston Dash.
“We are getting a player that has great technical ability, a superb left foot, and possibly the best goalscorer to come out of Ireland since Olivia O’Toole,” said Dash coach Randy Waldrum. It looked as if this promising striker’s professional career was truly taking off.
Then suddenly, in May, Roche’s contract was waived. Cue opportunistic headlines, like Roche’s US dreams Dashed, splashed across the back pages of most Irish newspapers. Roche, evidently crushed, took to the column she wrote for The Irish Times to explain what had happened.
Those following Roche’s fifteen minutes of fame with cynical eyes were quick to dismiss her termination as owing to the delayed discovery, by those in charge of the Dash, that one goal doth not a world-class striker make. Some pointed to the fact that she had failed to honour her contract with a French side earlier in the year, leaving amidst the fanfare of her Puskas nomination. A case of what goes around, comes around?
The official word was that the Dash were embroiled in an injury crisis, one which required them to sign two defenders, one Brazilian and one Australian. These signings would put them over the NWSL’s international player cap if they didn’t cut Stephanie loose. Waldrum claimed he would have preferred to keep her, but the NWSL rules make it easy for him to offload any dead weight.
She was not picked up on the waiver wire before the 24 hour headline – with just 24 minutes of action under her belt, no one took the risk of giving up a coveted international spot. Roche politely declined an offer to change her flight date home, deciding not to give up on America just yet.
Nonetheless, speaking to press back in Dublin last week, it seemed as if Stephanie had been burned by the dismissal.
“I learned the hard way over in the US that it’s easy to be cut. It’s not very good for the player over there, it’s more so in favour of the team.”
Performance, old-fashioned karma and any other considerations aside, Stephanie nailed the crux of the issue. Player power, lamented though it is as a flaw of European football and its sky-high salaries, is a not a problem in the United States. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Stephanie found her feet in Ireland, where an amateur Women’s National League only came into existence in 2011, so suffice to say she is more than accustomed to the tough road that faces female soccer players with professional aspirations.
Needless to say, it seems that she wasn’t aware of the extra difficulty in the NWSL until she experienced it first-hand. There, basic job security is a luxury the fledgling league can’t yet afford, especially for international players who face strong competition for limited spots and face returning home if things don’t work out.
Non-guaranteed contracts are a staple of American sport. They have long been utilised for contract structuring in the NBA and NFL, with varying levels of player leverage involved. Fundamentally though, man or woman, the structure of American sports leagues in general favours the league itself.
The name Bosman, so familiar to soccer fans across the Atlantic, doesn’t carry the same weight in the supposed Land of the Free. Jean-Marc Bosman was a Belgian professional footballer who played for RFC Liège. His contract expired in 1990 but without any rules to the contrary, Liège demanded a £500k fee from his would-be new club, effectively holding him to ransom and paying him a reduced wage due to the fact that he was not playing.
Bosman challenged the practice in the European Court of Justice, which, in 1995, ruled that players ought to be free to leave a club legally once their contract had ended. Thus, the concept of free agency was born.
Just this year, the MLS players’ union finally won free agency for players over the age of 28 who have played 8 seasons in the league. A small step for man, but still a giant leap away from the universal free movement available in the European Union. The single-entity system puts all power in the hands of the League.
Of course, there are benefits to the single-entity model from a corporate structuring standpoint. It owes its origins to United States antitrust law, and protects the leagues themselves from encroaching on competition rules. It also creates an environment in which new franchises can be created easily, without the need to find a willing owner. It also arguably makes for a more competitive league, with equal spending and signing power between clubs.
Unfortunately, all these convenient safeguards come at the expense of a free labour market, and in the end, players like Stephanie suffer.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup official Twitter account sent Stephanie a heartfelt message of support when the news of her termination broke: “Don’t lose sight of what you’ve accomplished. You’ll bounce back stronger. And millions know this.” Her American dream may have taken a hit, but nobody ever said it would be easy. Indeed, since being let go from Houston, Stephanie has completed a trial for the Boston Breakers and is in talks with two English clubs. Maybe she was a one-hit wonder, but there’s plenty more in this girl’s locker; she just needs to find her place.