By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 28, 2016) US Soccer Players – It’s the issue Major League Soccer can’t shake. That won’t change any time soon if MLS doesn’t switch their tactics. We’re talking about how the league tries to sell players.
A high-profile player, in the midst of his prime, draws the attention of a foreign club. They offer a bid. It doesn’t work out. The result is always the same. It’s an open discussion on the real value of the player. It’s also a question about MLS itself. Does the single-entity league understand how to operate in the transfer market?
Darlington Nagbe is a talented soccer player. His career has taken several striking turns despite his relative youth. The 26-year old Portland Timbers midfielder was crucial to his club’s run to an MLS Cup title in 2015. Yet, he’s still often viewed as a maddeningly inconsistent player. He’s also someone without a set position on the field. The skill set is plain, but he doesn’t show up on the stat sheet in a ways that make his contributions obvious.
Nagbe has the same issue at USMNT level. When former USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann put Nagbe on the field in an area Nagbe didn’t feel suited him, the player passed on a call-up to the team and endangered his standing in the program.
Luckily for Nagbe, Klinsmann is gone. He may get another chance to shine at the international level under the more MLS-friendly Bruce Arena. In the meantime, there’s the matter of where Nagbe will be playing his club soccer in 2017 to sort out.
As you’ve no doubt realized, Nagbe is the player who has again prompted questions about MLS’s transfer policy. MLS is looking for a balance here. They need talent, especially US talent, to stay in the league. They also have to realize that some players need to move for the good of their careers.
MLS history has a few examples of the league deciding the player will stay. That means turning down significant money and going against the preference of the player. The stock example here is Taylor Twellman. He had a chance to join Preston North End in early 2008. MLS decided they wanted him to stay, turning down a reported offer of close to $2m.
It’s not as through MLS hasn’t let go of some of it’s most promising young faces before. The record for an outgoing transfer is still Jozy Altidore’s $10 million sale to Villarreal of Spain. That deal went down in 2008, when Altidore was just 18 years old. Toronto FC’s financial position and ability to invest in the infrastructure of the club got a big boost from the sale of Maurice Edu to Rangers for $5 million that same year. More recently, MLS sold Andy Najar to a club in Belgium, Brek Shea (who has since returned to MLS) to Stoke City, and DeAndre Yedlin of the Sounders to Spurs.
Of course, it’s that wording “the league sold [player]” that still dogs perception of how outgoing transfers work when it comes to MLS. Is it the league or the club making the decision? Is the appearance that the league unreasonably prices players true? Is it the all-seeing, all-knowing Major League Soccer deciding the fate of players who want to go and clubs who want to sell?
There’s enough recent evidence to suggest that’s not necessarily the full story. Still, it’s a hard appearance to shake under single-entity.
There are other questions surrounding Nagbe’s proposed move to Celtic that are worth asking. Is Scotland a higher level? Can the Timbers realistically replace him in time for the season? How much is a 26-year old speedy midfield who adds more in the middle of the park than on the attacking end really worth on the open market?
Only the last question matters. Because of single-entity, it’s tough to properly price Nagbe or anyone else. There’s no competition between MLS clubs, so no value within the league. Outside of the league, it’s foreign clubs negotiating with MLS, not Portland. Anywhere else, this discussion would be about two clubs, not two clubs and one of their leagues. As it is, Portland won’t see all of the money from a sale, something that could impact their willingness to part ways with a star player.
That’s the problem. It might not be “MLS” (the organization) derailing a deal at all. It could be the Timbers. Though their hesitance could be down to the rules MLS has put in place. It’s the league, but it’s not the league. It’s the club, but it’s not the club. Then there’s the player caught in a muddled transfer system.
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