By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 30, 2015) US Soccer Players – While there’s nothing official yet, rumors persist that Didier Drogba will soon be leaving the Montreal Impact for a return to his spiritual home, Chelsea. What role Drogba might take back with his old English club is unclear. From an Impact perspective, it hardly matters. Losing out on a full season of Drogba leading their attack will require a hard turn in a new direction as the Impact prepare for the 2016 MLS season.
Montreal pushed all of its chips in on Drogba, and rightfully so. All the striker did upon his arrival in Quebec last summer was score a goal for every regular season appearance he made. Drogba reformed the team in the process of pushing them into the playoff on a rocket ship of momentum. If 2015 was the preview, 2016 is the full show. Now there might not be a show at all.
Therein lies the problem of building a team around such a large central figure. In the age of the Designated Player, there’s a temptation for MLS teams to sign a talented, aging, marketable name and make him the lead character in their program. It’s a bet that his influence will help turn the side into a contender. With that gamble comes the acknowledgement that if the player in question doesn’t fully commit, or worse yet bails on the project early, the club is back to square one.
It’s not possible to “rebuild” when the load-bearing column is no longer in place. The whole edifice comes crashing down. For clubs that are not adept at forming a competitive team under the MLS salary constraints, the removal of such a key figure can send the team reeling.
Timing, as they say, is everything. Knowing when players will need to be replaced, or at what point crucial decisions about the future of a team must be made can be the difference between a flash-in-the-pan playoff season and a long, consistent run as a year-in, year-out MLS Cup contender. Teams plan, especially when it comes to big investment in name players. When that planning goes awry on the whim of a player who changes his mind, MLS teams lack the financial maneuverability to overcome such a blow in a short timeframe.
The phenomenon doesn’t make MLS unique, beyond the peculiar dynamics dictated by the salary structure. The world over, players change their minds. The balance of power tilts decidedly in the direction of the high profile player, the player who can force his way out of any situation as long as he has interest from another club somewhere. If a player quits on a project, there’s little a club can do to prevent him from leaving. The alternative is holding onto an unhappy star. A club digging in has its own costs.
With three DPs and the addition of new allocation money mechanisms, MLS teams can now spread out the responsibility. Clubs no longer need to identify one gigantic figure to become both the face of the club and its most important on-field performer. The New York Red Bulls benefited greatly from the tenure of Thierry Henry in New Jersey. That said, it was clear during his four-years there that signing one world class player whose shadow easily obscures the rest of the club doesn’t necessarily result in championships. The trick to winning in MLS is more about the supporting cast than the marquee player.
The wisdom of the approach is even more questionable in a league that too often suffers from a lack of respect, even from players who sign up to play in North America. Drogba proved to be committed and capable in a short 2014 run. However, there are plenty of examples of big name players who arrive here only to fail to grasp the effort levels needed to be successful. It’s not that the soccer is difficult, of course. It’s that the uniqueness of a competition played across a vast continent in unfamiliar conditions on questionable surfaces presents new challenges that are not always easily overcome in short order. If the financial commitment is large and the player isn’t ready, the recipe will return an ill-tasting product.
Sometimes, the bad start that can lead to disgruntled superstars who wreck programs, forcing teams to hit the reset button well before anything can even take. Perpetual rebuilding is the hallmark of the league’s worst teams. While not all of them are in that limbo due to an investment-gone-wrong involving a marquee player, the danger is very real. Pick the wrong star, one who runs or collapses early in the plan, and the whole thing will come crashing down.
At that point, it’s not even a matter of rebuilding. Instead, it’s clearing the rubble before a new plan can even take shape.
More From Jason Davis: