A Long Way to the Goal
Sure, Andy Williams is lucky: He gets paid to play soccer. But being a journeyman athlete is no ticket to wealth. With maybe five years left in his playing career, he needs to get his finances on the ball.
(MONEY Magazine) – When Marcia Karyo first met Andy Williams over dinner with mutual friends while vacationing in Jamaica seven years ago, strangers pointed at the young man in the group, screaming "Bomma!" Women swooned. Marcia was baffled. It seems Andy, then a 20-year-old senior at the University of Rhode Island, had neglected to mention that he was a Jamaican soccer star--his nickname referred to his ferocious, bomb-like shots--and the country was exploding with World Cup frenzy.
Andy was interested in Marcia, but she had a daughter from a crumbling marriage back in Florida and, at age 26, was in no mood for flings with a kid barely out of his teens. Andy understood. His son had been born several months earlier to an ex-girlfriend from college. Still, he knew Marcia was the one.
He called her from France during Jamaica's failed World Cup bid in the summer of 1998, and that fall they talked on the phone all the time as he was beginning his rookie season as a midfielder with the Columbus Crew of the fledgling American pro soccer league. He led the team with 12 assists that year, but when the team benched him during a long losing streak, Andy called Marcia to tell her that he'd asked to be traded to Miami so they could live together. Marcia was convinced this was no fling.
In 2000, Andy got his wish and joined the Miami Fusion, where he scored a career-high four goals, respectable for a midfielder. Two years later the couple married, and they now have a two-year-old, Alexia. Marcia's daughter Shai-Ann, 11, thinks of Andy as her second father, and to Marcia, Andy's son Jordain, 8, who lives with his mother in Vermont, is part of the family. Fade to black, roll credits.
That would be the Hollywood version. In real life, neither Andy nor Marcia suspected that after they finally reunited their lives would become a blur of moving vans, painful separations and borrowed money as Andy bounced among six teams over eight seasons, a Major League Soccer record. During one nightmarish period, Andy's annual salary plummeted from about $120,000 to $31,000 in just a few months. He was partially to blame for the disruptions--coaches say his defensive play left something to be desired. But also at fault are strict league rules limiting the number of foreign players per team.
Most of us worry about being downsized, outsourced or replaced by technology or some young turk, but athletes live with even more uncertainty: injuries, trades, fickle fans, coaches and owners--not to mention young turks. If you think planning for retirement is tricky, imagine being forced to quit your career in your thirties with few marketable skills and little time to develop them.
In August, as Marcia was packing up the family for yet another move (this time from Chicago to Salt Lake City), she muttered that this would be absolutely, positively the last time. But there is no contractual guarantee that Andy won't play for another team next year. And though his salary is back up, to $95,000, the family is struggling with credit-card bills, child support payments and mortgages that have left the Williams clan in debt, barely able to make ends meet and without a clue about how they'll survive when he retires in five or six years (sooner if he doesn't stay healthy). "I've been in this league since '98," he says, "and I don't have anything to show for it."
At five feet, eight inches and 155 pounds, Andy Williams is a ball-handling wizard. As a midfielder, his primary job is playmaker. Few players are as gifted at dribbling, passing and setting up an attack, but Andy also has that famously explosive, cannon-like shot. "He's one of those guys who can just change games at will," says his current coach at Real Salt Lake, John Ellinger. But shortly after Andy moved in with Marcia in 2000, each team's limit of foreign players was cut from four to three. He'd had a very good year, racking up 12 points (in a player's stats, goals count as two points, assists as one), but Miami put him on waivers the following season.
Fortunately, the New England Revolution scooped him up. But moving was tough for the family. Marcia had to leave her job as a nursing assistant and quit nursing school. On the field Andy proved that Miami had made a big mistake, earning 13 points in 20 games and being named New England's Most Valuable Player. But just as the family was feeling settled in their rented apartment in Rhode Island, they had to pack up again when the Revolution traded Andy to the New York MetroStars five games into the 2002 season.
"After being named MVP, I was pretty shocked," says Andy. But the coaches felt he could have hustled back on defense more, which would become a common criticism. "Andy's got great soccer ability, which is why he's been in the league so long," says Steve Nicol, an assistant coach at New England in 2002 and now head coach. "It's not that he doesn't work hard, but we have to get guys who will kick and spit and punch to get results."
As if to prove New England wrong too, Andy had an even better year in New York, tallying 17 points. By now he was making $120,000 and feeling secure enough about his future to begin splurging--renting a $2,000 apartment in a gated community in New Jersey, buying a BMW X5 SUV at $800 a month and taking Marcia out for expensive dinners. "We'd talk about saving a little bit," Marcia recalls. "But Andy would say, 'I'm still young and playing well, so we should enjoy ourselves.' We didn't think we needed to be concerned about money."
When New York failed to make the playoffs, the coach was fired and his replacement didn't pick up the option on Andy's contract. All the other teams in the league had reached their quota of foreign players, and none bid for his services. Complicating matters, Marcia discovered that she was pregnant. She and Andy weren't married yet, so she didn't qualify for league health insurance and had to put doctor bills on credit cards.
To pay the rent, the family accepted gifts from Shai-Ann's father's parents. "I had a good year at New England and got traded, and then I had a good year in New York," says Andy. "It was very frustrating." He traveled to Mexico and England in hopes of finding a team but got no offers.
Finally, in April of 2003, the Chicago Fire approached him with a deal, but salary-cap restrictions meant it could offer only a paltry $31,000 (though it sweetened the pot with year-end performance bonuses and a raise to $75,000 the following season). Andy had little choice but to take it. Marcia had to buy food with credit cards, and their debt ballooned to $20,000. Her sister and brother helped out with other bills.
Once again, Andy played well, leading the Fire with seven assists and scoring on a long bomb during the playoffs to help the team march to the conference championship. When Chicago also reached the finals of the U.S. Open Cup against New York, Andy wanted revenge badly. The game was scoreless until the 66th minute, when Andy came off the bench to put in motion the play that led to the only goal in the Fire's 1-0 victory. After the game, he called Marcia from the locker room and cried over his moment of vindication. "I don't know what came over me," says Andy, normally even-keeled. "I've tried so hard in this league, and whenever a team needs me, I go out there and deliver. I just lost it."
When Andy had another great year in 2004, leading the Fire with nine assists and scoring four goals, his salary was scheduled to rise to $95,000. After talking with team officials, he felt comfortable enough about the future to buy a house in the area. But a week after he put down a $7,000 deposit, the team told him it would not be protecting him in the expansion draft. Soon he was snatched up by Real Salt Lake. He took a hit of more than $13,000 when the house finally sold, thanks in large part to upgrades.
"I'm so tired of moving," Marcia says as she stuffs the family back into boxes for the Salt Lake move. She stayed behind as usual while Shai-Ann finished the school year and has been living apart from her husband since March. Exhausted by moves and worried about their future, Andy and Marcia agreed to meet with a financial planner for advice about how to dig themselves out of debt and begin planning for the day when Andy will have to hang up his cleats for good.
For people with turbulent careers, says Mike Finer of Major League Investments of Salem, Mass., sticking to a budget and saving aggressively is not merely a good idea--it's a necessity. Finer specializes in helping professional athletes and entertainers. While they should be aware how quickly their fortunes can change, most don't budget accordingly, he says. "People always expect their income to increase, not decrease, and Andy and Marcia fell into that trap." But they're young and still have time to make some changes.
• Cut costs and reorganize. Right now, a big problem is cash flow. More than half of Andy's monthly after-tax income of about $6,100 is being gobbled up by the mortgage on their Salt Lake City home ($2,450), Jordain's child support ($638) and the lease on Andy's fancy 2003 Audi A4 ($511). The remaining $2,500 goes to food and other necessities, leaving nothing for their 401(k) plan, emergency savings or college funds for the kids. Plus, their debts total $16,000.
Finer says it was a mistake to buy their four-bedroom house in Salt Lake for $359,000--if Andy is traded again, they could repeat their Chicago experience. But it may not be too late to fix things. If real estate prices hold and the Williamses are certain they won't lose money, they should sell the house as soon as possible, put the profit into the league's new 401(k) plan and rent an apartment in the local market for between $1,000 and $1,500, saving at least $1,000 a month.
In the meantime, the family should take out a second mortgage on the house at about 6% interest to pay off the $10,455 they still owe to five different credit-card companies at interest rates that range from 10% to 17%. In that case, they would have to sell the house at a price high enough to pay off both mortgages.
Owning a house is a good idea, but they should buy one in Florida, where they'd like to retire, and rent it out, Finer says. Andy must also get rid of that expensive Audi, buy cheaper wheels for about $300 a month and sock away the extra money in the 401(k). ("I'm not convinced he needs a nice car if he's traveling for nine months of the year," says Finer.)
• Maximize the hot years. "These are his key earnings years, so he needs to start branding himself," says Finer, adding that Andy must start thinking more like an entrepreneur. He could create his own website and instructional DVD, appear at local car dealerships to sign soccer balls, do more charity work and even write his autobiography with an eye to extending his brand nationally. "Branding is like politics: It starts locally," says Finer. "But he has to decide to be a public figure, and I'm not sure he's really decided that. Look at Michael Jordan. Aside from being a great basketball player, he learned how to really work a product."
• Start planning--now--for a second career. It can take years to establish a second career that pays even a fraction of an athlete's former salary, says Finer, so getting an early start is crucial. If Andy can play for five years before retiring, he should have just enough time. A top priority should be to finish his undergraduate studies in business management (he quit URI one semester early to play in the '98 World Cup), which could easily be accomplished with one or two courses a year during his winter breaks.
Andy is unsure what he wants to do after retirement--maybe a front office or public relations job with a Major League Soccer team--but he sounds most excited when he talks about coaching. Finer suggests Andy start developing relationships with soccer camps and college athletic programs, preferably in Florida. He can make guest appearances and hold short training camps during the off-season to make contacts and gain coaching experience.
With Andy's post-retirement still a question mark, Finer strongly supports Marcia's idea of continuing her nursing studies. She hasn't worked outside the home since Alexia was born, but within three years she could have her degree and start working as a registered nurse, eventually earning up to six figures. In the meantime, the family could save as much as $2,000 a year in taxes by writing off tuition fees.
The best thing for the Williams family, of course, would be to stay put for a while. So far the signs are good. Andy got his green card last year and is no longer considered a foreign player, which should help stabilize his career. Plus, he's working hard on his defense, and Coach Ellinger has nothing but raves about Andy's play on both ends of the field. "He's one of our key guys," Ellinger says. "Andy's not going anywhere."
The Williams family has heard such promises before, of course. If Real Salt Lake keeps losing (at press time the team had dropped nearly three times as many games as it had won), both coach and star could be sent packing. But today Marcia and Andy are far more realistic than during those sunny days in Jamaica when she first heard fans shouting "Bomma!" And surprisingly, more optimistic too. "It's been a real learning experience for us both, so we're more prepared to deal with the unpredictability now," says Marcia. "Whenever we have to move, I usually think, 'Not again!' But now, for the first time, we're all equally excited."
The Bottom Line
Cutting down on expenses--including that mortgage--should be the Williams family's first step toward a solid savings plan.