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MLS All-Star Game: Behind the scenes

Major League Soccer
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The protracted battle between Marvell Wynne and MLS that led to the end of his career

Alejandro Moreno describes the confrontation between San Jose's Mikael Stahre and Fatai Alashe as a microcosm of bigger issues for the Earthquakes.

Marvell Wynne is still coming to grips with how his professional soccer career ended.

The MLS veteran and former U.S. international announced his retirement from the game in a Twitter post back on April 20. It wasn't aging legs or a decline in ability that ended his career, but rather a heart defect that despite being corrected by surgery, resulted in him not being cleared to play.

"It's not really the way I wanted to go out after being in the league for 13 years, but I guess my hand was kind of forced," said Wynne via telephone. "I didn't really have an option, to be honest."

Before the start of the 2017 season, Wynne signed a new two-year deal with the San Jose Earthquakes that would have earned him $257,000 a year. But during the preseason physical, Wynne was diagnosed with an enlarged aortic root, the section of the aorta closest to and attached to the heart, consisting of the aortic valve and the openings for the coronary arteries. The typical diameter of an aortic root is 2 to 3 centimeters, while Wynne's was between 4.4 and 4.8 centimeters. Surgery is usually recommended only if the diameter exceeds 5 centimeters, but Wynne was told by his doctors that the rigors of playing professional soccer necessitated having surgery if he wanted to continue playing.

Wynne opted for surgery, a nine-hour operation that took place on March 24, 2017, at Stanford Medical Center. Wynne recalled that the surgeon, Dr. Craig Miller, discovered in the operation that the walls of Wynne's aortic root were thinner than normal, like a water balloon filled with too much water.

"I was actually at high risk for a rupture because they couldn't tell the actual thickness of my aorta," said Wynne.

Wynne is not the first professional athlete Dr. Miller has operated on. In 2005, Dr. Miller performed a similar operation on now-former NBA player Ronny Turiaf. Turiaf not only recovered, but he went on to play eight seasons in the NBA. Granted, the sports are different, but both involved a certain level of physicality as well as aerobic intensity. Dr. Miller also performed a similar operation on an F-18 Navy fighter pilot who was able to regain his flight status in spite of sustaining considerable G-forces on his chest.

The surgery was a success, but Wynne's future as a professional soccer player was still unclear. His agent and the MLS Players Association asked that Wynne's future be assessed post-surgery, and the league agreed. In the interim, MLS continued paying Wynne, although it was under no obligation to do so, considering he officially failed the entrance physical.

Wynne was keen to get back on the field as soon as possible, and he was cleared by both Dr. Miller and his cardiologist, Dr. David Liang, to begin ramping up his workouts.

To that end, Wynne was seen by MLS' cardiologist, Dr. Matthew Martinez, in mid-June. In an undated letter obtained by ESPN FC that Dr. Martinez sent to Wynne, he indicated that Wynne "was doing well at that time and his CT indicated the repair of his ascending aorta was stable without complications."

Marvell Wynne looks on during the MLS match between the San Jose Earthquakes and Orlando City.
Marvell Wynne missed the entirety of the 2017 season with a heart defect.

The letter stated that the two agreed that Wynne could escalate his exercise intensity and attempt to return himself to "season-ready" physical shape.

"Once [Wynne] was exercising at game-ready speed we would re-image him," the letter read. "We determined this should be a sufficient amount of time to make sure his surgical repair is able to handle the level of stress. We also decided this would be early October, at which time we would re-image his ascending aortic repair to make sure nothing had changed. At that point, he would be medically cleared to play in a game if all remained unchanged within his aortic surgical repair."

Dr. Martinez's assessment indicated there was a path forward for Wynne, though there were no guarantees. But about two weeks later, MLS informed Wynne in a letter dated June 29, 2017, that as of June 30, Wynne's contract was suspended and he would no longer be paid by the league.

MLS confirmed that the catalyst for the decision was the October time frame laid out in Dr. Martinez's letter. Considering Wynne would not be able to return to the Quakes when the league-wide roster freeze took place in early September, there was no chance he would be able to play in 2017. Therefore, MLS decided to stop paying Wynne, although it left open the possibility that he could return in 2018 under the same contract terms if he was medically cleared to play, while also telling Wynne in a letter obtained by ESPN FC, "We also reserve our right to recoup, at that time, the salary amounts paid to you in 2017."

The juxtaposition of the contract suspension alongside the outlook from Dr. Martinez is one that Wynne found jarring, and is the source for much of his frustration.

"It was a complete 180 from what I'd heard from their doctor," said Wynne. "I had been working out harder than I ever had. I felt great, I felt fit, I could easily just go right on the pitch and join the team and not worry about not being in shape. I was ready to go, then bam, no pay. I was livid."

The decision to stop paying Wynne set in motion a series of events that led him to a professional dead end. Eager to get back on the field as well as get paid for 2017, Wynne utilized a mechanism through the CBA that allowed for an independent third opinion to determine if he could play, and he had his case examined by a panel of cardiologists at the Mayo Clinic. A letter obtained by ESPN FC from Dr. Heidi M. Connolly dated Sept. 13, 2017, revealed that it was the panel's unanimous recommendation that Wynne never play professional soccer again.

In the letter, the panel's concerns centered on "the extent of the aortic enlargement noted prior to surgery ... the description of the 'exceptionally thin and fragile' sinuses of Valsalva at the time of the surgery, and the minimal enlargement of the proximal descending thoracic aorta. The combination of these three findings made the group feel that it would be in your best interest not to participate in competitive athletics where very vigorous exercise, in a competitive environment, combined with a potential for chest trauma would occur."

Dr. Miller had a decidedly different take.

"Marvell has been screwed," he said by telephone. "He is as strong as anybody his age, and he's just as strong as that fighter pilot ... The lawyers are wagging the dog."

Dr. Miller later added, "I sewed the graft in and it's tough. The fighter pilot [who is sustaining] plus-seven and negative-two G's, that is 10 times more the force than any defensive back coming up fast who hits a 230-pound tailback. That's incredible force, so I think the [concern about chest trauma] is hogwash ... Structurally, mechanically, stresses and strains, that aorta [in Wynne] is stronger than any other normal human."

(Attempts to reach Dr. Connolly through the Mayo Clinic were not successful.)

Hindsight being what it is, had Wynne not sought out the third opinion at the Mayo Clinic, he might have been able to play in 2018. The extent to which playing was advisable depends on which doctor you believe, but it was the Mayo Clinic's recommendation that the league followed, and now Wynne's career is done.

Hypothetically, there's nothing to stop him from playing in a league outside the United States and Canada. But at 32, with the Mayo Clinic's recommendation, and any new contract potentially affecting the disability payments he's been receiving and/or a potential settlement with the league, it's a near certainty that Wynne never plays again.

"I guess that just scared MLS to just not consider me playing ever again," said Wynne about the Mayo Clinic's report. "They went the safe route."

Wynne bears no ill will toward the Quakes, who let the defender use the team's workout facilities during his recovery.

Marvell Wynne controls during the MLS match between the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids.
Marvell Wynne announced his retirement in April after a heart defect was discovered in 2017.

"The Quakes, they're the good guys, I'll tell you that," he said.

Rather, Wynne's ire is directed at MLS. Wynne acknowledged the league paid him for six months when it wasn't required to. Yet his frustration stems from the mixed messages it sent in terms of getting an encouraging assessment from the doctor, but then ceasing payment of his salary. Wynne said that had his doctors or the league told him from the beginning that he wouldn't be able to play again, all of this would have been easier to take.

Did MLS go beyond what was contractually required? Given that this was a non-soccer-related ailment as opposed to one that happened on the field, the answer is yes. And it was Wynne's longevity in the league that led MLS to continue paying him in the first place.

MLS was offered the opportunity to speak at length on the record about Wynne's case, but the league opted to issue the following statement to ESPN FC:

"Our primary concern was and remains Marvell's health," said MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott in a prepared statement. "Although he was unable to fulfill his contract, and the league was under no obligation to do so, MLS continued to pay Marvell for six months while the nature of his condition was researched and treated. Throughout that time, MLS was straightforward and candid with Marvell and the MLSPA about the status of his contract and the process for clearing him to return to play. In addition, we are in active discussions with his representatives and the MLS Players Association about further financial considerations for a player that has meant a great deal to this league, winning championships on the field and serving as a role model in the community."

Without question, there are also emotional and legal aspects for MLS in this, in that no league would want to be held responsible should something heart-related happen to Wynne on the field. There is history of soccer players dying on the field due to heart issues, from Cameroon defender Marc-Vivien Foe to Espanyol defender Dani Jarque to more recently Ivorian midfielder Cheick Tiote.

But Dr. Miller stated that Wynne's condition is different from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is what caused Foe's death. And he stated that "Shared Decision Making" is now in vogue, whereby patients decide the level of risk they are willing to take. He thinks that should apply in Wynne's case.

But as it relates to Wynne's contract, the optics are still poor given that MLS ceased paying Wynne just three months after his surgery, and even held out the possibility it might seek to recoup what he was paid in 2017 should he be cleared to play in 2018. MLS could have kept paying Wynne through his follow-up examination in October and been universally applauded.

Financially, Wynne is getting disability payments from the State of California as well as a private insurer, but he says it's not to the same level as his prior salary. It is also set to run out after two years, at which point he'll be reassessed in terms of what payments he'll qualify for. He also remains covered by the league's health insurance, and was in discussions over a front-office job with the Earthquakes.

The MLS Players Association confirmed it is in the process of negotiating a settlement for Wynne, though talks have been dragging on for eight months. The MLSPA declined further comment.

Wynne's experience has served as a reminder of just how tenuous a professional sports career is.

"After all this, I realize I am just a product, I'm not really a person," he said. "I was a means of making money. That's just the way it is. I see MLS a little differently now. Every team wants you to grab the crest and show pride and honor and all that. But at the drop of a hat, you're not doing too well? Gone. Someone better has come along? Gone. Someone cheaper has come along? Gone. And then MLS does the same thing with their power. I've been in the league for so long. I think I've contributed quite a bit. And then we have to negotiate so hard to try to get anything out of a settlement, if that's even possible. I was working for them. Now it's me versus them. I don't know how that happened so quickly."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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