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Blue-collar Timbers paying their dues

Players don't score big paychecks, but they connect with fans
by: Christopher Onstott Portland Timbers forward Kenny Cooper shows off his footwork against FC Dallas. Cooper and goalkeeper Troy Perkins are the Timbers’ highest-paid players, each due base salary of $250,000 for this season.

If Timber Joey, the Portland Timbers' chain saw-wielding mascot, became a real lumberjack, he could expect to earn about $38,000 a year. That would be more than what four 'apprentice' Timber players are making in the club's inaugural MLS season.

Salaries have always been a touchy subject, to some degree, with pro soccer players and management in America. Although they are on the rise - up by 12 percent from last year, by some calculations - imported stars tend to get a disproportionate amount and the MLS remains well behind other top leagues around the world in what it pays its rank and file.

Twelve of the Timbers' 28 players will earn base pay ranging from $32,600 to $42,000 for the 2011 season. Only seven are making more than $80,000.

The good news for the MLS is that as America continues to struggle through an economic recession, it can be easier for fans to relate to its players than to the millionaire athletes in other sports that are haggling for more money with the billionaire owners. Statements such as the one made recently by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who called playing in the NFL 'modern-day slavery,' do not carry much weight with people working minimum-wage jobs, or looking for work.

American soccer, though, is one sport where many fans might make more money than the players.

'At the moment, there is a relationship between the fans and the players,' Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson says. 'They're all trying to grow the game, and they're all trying their utmost to see the sport where it should be.'

The Timbers rank last in the league in payroll ($2,652,557), according to figures released by the MLS players' union. The New York Red Bulls are first with salaries totaling $13,397,087.

Wilkinson says the union's figures don't tell the whole story, because they do not include costs such as transfer fees and allocation money. He says it isn't accurate to view Portland as the stingiest side in the league.

'It's definitely not accurate,' Wilkinson says. 'We've got an owner (Merritt Paulson) who has invested a lot of money. There are players we've acquired who are costing more than what's showing up.'

Recently, starting goalkeeper Troy Perkins, one of the highest-paid Timbers ($250,000 base salary), had a conversation with midfielder Rodrigo Lopez, who is among the lowest-paid members of the club ($32,604 base).

'My first contract (with D.C. United) was $850 a month,' Perkins told Lopez. 'I had no health insurance, no nothing. I was working two jobs. I was at Galyan's sporting goods store (now Dick's Sporting Goods), working until 11 o'clock at night.'

Perkins' Timber salary is a reflection of the dues he has paid during seven years in the MLS.

'I've put in the work,' says Perkins, 29. 'It's something I deserve. I've earned it. I'm not a guy that comes in late to training, I work my (tail) off, day in and day out.'

Lopez, 24, says he understands that he will have to work to reach a high pay level. For now, he is playing more for love of the game than a paycheck.

'I've been in this sport since I was 16 and I've never made money to the point where I could be well off,' Lopez says. 'But I'm still fighting for a spot. I'm still fighting to be a consistent player in MLS or any professional league.'

Increasing player value

Timbers striker Kenny Cooper has the same base salary as Perkins, but he makes less than half of what Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo is receiving each week this season: 370,312 Euros, or about $520,177.

'He's worth it,' Timbers coach John Spencer says, of Ronaldo. 'I'm a big believer that you get out of life truly what you deserve and if you put enough hard work and effort in, you get rewarded. So, no, I don't begrudge anybody anything.'

Spencer, however, says payroll doesn't necessarily have much impact on team success.

'I don't look at those things,' he says. 'I just look at performances on the field. We've got 20-year-olds playing on our team, and we have a respectable position in the conference, points-wise (5-3-2, 17 points). It's just sports, man. Any given day, any team can beat another team.'

MLS player salaries are likely to increase as the league grows, but Perkins says he is happy with the ground that has been covered since he began his MLS career in 2004 out of the University of Evansville.

'It's fantastic,' he says. 'I know everyone wants it right now -we want to be equivalent to European guys. We're getting there.'

Spencer says he also believes that the MLS eventually will be on a level comparable to some of the topflight European clubs. He just doesn't know when that will happen.

'Eventually, it will get up there,' Spencer says. 'Can I put a time limit on it? No, because I don't have a crystal ball.'

Wilkinson won't speculate on where the Timbers will rank among MLS payrolls as Portland tries to build an even better team. But he has a promise.

'We will do what it takes to be successful,' he says. 'We'll choose our own route and one that's successful.

'You'll start to see us solidifying what we want to do going forward, and that is acquiring players at a low value, and increasing that player's value.

'We're a blue-collar team, It's what Portland has been for many, many years: hardworking individual players who believe in the collective mentality of the organization.'