HOUSTON - APRIL 10: Cam Weaver #15 of the Houston Dynamo goes over the top of Michael Boxall #2 of the Vancouver Whitecaps for a header in the second half at Robertson Stadium on April 10, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
So, farewell then Michael Boxall.
It's a bit embarrassing that it took me this long to get to the release of the former Vancouver Whitecaps centre back, announced by the club late last week. I liked Boxall, praised a few of his games last year, and am sorry that he isn't sticking around. He seemed like a classy person and a potentially useful player.
In a way, the fact that I'm getting to Boxall late is appropriate. Under Martin Rennie Boxall has seemed like an afterthought. He had Teitur Thordarson's confidence as a useful backup, Tom Soehn got plenty of use from Boxall until Carlyle Mitchell arrived, and while both considered him a depth player they were also willing to give him minutes. Not so Rennie, under whom Boxall did not play so much as an MLS second before being somewhat unceremoniously waived.
A big, tough centre back who proved an utterly dominant aerial force pretty much the second he arrived in MLS, Boxall came into Vancouver without expectations. We grabbed him in the supplemental draft and, his rookie season, he grabbed 1,616 minutes. He now has five senior caps for New Zealand, which is five more international appearances for a World Cup-level team than most waived Whitecaps ever manage.
Of course Boxall had his weaknesses. His foot speed was never the greatest and he didn't show the improvement I'd have hoped for in reading the game at MLS speed. If I may speak quite frankly about a player I still like, he also didn't exactly force his way into the first team when I saw him playing lower-level matches. But who can doubt that Boxall has professional-level talent; he proved that plenty of times last season.
Sadly, Boxall falls victim to a numbers game. He takes up a roster slot and an international spot; the Whitecaps aren't heavily in surplus of either one of those. He couldn't get many minutes in USL PDL because rules restrict how many MLS contracts can appear in each PDL game.
Maybe that's what bugs me most about Boxall. I don't know that he'd ever become a quality MLS starter, although worse players have. But in almost every other league in the world, Boxall would be kept around and given a chance to play at his proper level and either prove himself or conclusively wash out. Not so in MLS, which for all its talk about developing quality talent is rigged the game in so many ways.
It's hilarious that MLS's roster and salary cap rules, created to prevent financial catastrophe and competitive ruin, are now primarily useful for keeping down players like Boxall. Teams can sign three Designated Players with infinite salaries, use allocation money to pay down more expensive talent, and of course the rules change every time an old European pro winks at the Los Angeles Galaxy. Only the single-entity structure keeps a team from spending a billion dollars on Ronaldinho and Robert Pires and collapsing into New York Cosmos-style financial catastrophe.
But holding onto a guy like Boxall (or signing Daniel Stanese to a living wage, or getting your Residency players MLS contracts while still retaining their full eligibility for quality developmental league matches, or bringing Kyle Porter into MLS rather than trying to nickel-and-dime him because you've already used up all your higher-level developmental salary spots)? Forget it. Sure, give the likes of Shalrie Joseph $500,000 a year, but ten more players making $45,000 and all of a sudden you're talking about real money.
Boxall's biggest problem, of course, is that he's a New Zealander in a league which perversely tries to develop domestic players by restricting competition from internationals. Therefore the dice were loaded against him from the start and it's a testament to his perseverance that he's come as far as he has. He brings a lot to the right lineup. As I said, he is just a leviathan in the air; he played a pretty good professional aerial man out of a job last year in Greg Janicki. He was a better partner for Alain Rochat as a centre back than Jay DeMerit was, in my books, because the two complemented each other: Rochat brought skill, pace, and leadership without hurdling himself out of position trying to cover for Boxall's inexperience, while Boxall could clean up the trash all day long.
There's a guy who'd be well-advised to get some seasoning in the North American Soccer League. FC Edmonton is in desperate need of a big centre back who can win headers to go with Paul Hamilton, a smaller but highly skilled guy. It sounds like a match made in heaven. But of course if Boxall sticks around in North America he faces trying to break into that ridiculous closed MLS shop again. In most leagues in the world the Whitecaps could afford to keep Boxall around and maybe loan him out, or if Vancouver chose to release him anyway he could sign with a lower division team knowing that, if his skills were up to it, he'd eventually earn himself another place at the top. Not here. It's not the hallowed "pyramid" problem; there are plenty of NASL or USL PRO teams Boxall could take a crack at. But if he wants to return to the pinnacle of the Canadian and American game there's "who owns his MLS rights?" and "will they pay him more than an NASL wage?" and "is he out of contract, because you know MLS will never pay a transfer to the leagues it leeches off of?"
And so MLS screws itself out of another talent. It's a pity. Boxall's a well-spoken player who has been active on Twitter and has a great relationship with the fans. If he got his chance and developed into a starter then he'd be a great role model, the sort of guy any team would fall over itself using in advertisements. If he didn't develop into a starter then fine, but it wouldn't have cost the Whitecaps much to find out. At least, not in a rational league it wouldn't have.