By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 20, 2017) US Soccer Players - Some readers will be familiar with my occasional tendency to sift through developments from seemingly disparate quarters of the American soccer scene in search of deeper meaning.
So far October has brought us stunning World Cup qualification heartbreak, and a resulting tidal wave of anger, recrimination and soul-searching. Word has trickled out about several rising US talents leaving their hometown clubs in search of opportunities abroad. The sudden prospect of the Columbus Crew making tracks for Austin, Texas materialized out of nowhere. You could call it an eventful month.
News of a founding MLS franchise mulling an unceremonious flight south, for me at least, was the unwelcome chaser for a bitter week or two. Less than a year ago much of the American soccer punditocracy flocked to Ohio’s capital city, praising its uniquely potent history and mystique in the run-up to the Hexagonal opener vs Mexico at Mapfre Stadium. Eleven months and one last-minute loss to El Tri later, and the place widely described as the USMNT’s spiritual home is facing a completely different relationship with the upper echelons of the beautiful game.
The Crew-to-Austin scenario, should it come to pass, would mark only the second relocation in MLS history. The San Jose Earthquakes’ move to Houston to become the Dynamo in 2006 is the sole move of that magnitude. That tale wound up with a happier ending just two years later. The Quakes resumed play under new ownership, and eventually got the new stadium that had fueled the first version’s departure.
It’s hard to see such a favorable outcome for Columbus. Owner Anthony Precourt managed to ask the city for help with a new downtown stadium while simultaneously listing its unflattering business metrics in his official announcement of flirtation with Austin. Disappointingly for some of us, MLS commissioner Don Garber gave the narrative his stamp of approval via a canned press release quote, conveying the strong impression that the market isn’t as attractive to the league as it once was.
Precourt frames his wandering eye as “ambition”. Just business, in other words, even with the Columbus faithful cut to the core and up in arms. Perhaps ominously for him, the city of Austin – home to a litany of failed lower-division clubs over the decades – gave a rather lukewarm initial welcome. MLS sources tell USSoccerPlayers.com that no stadium deal is in place there, or even in sight yet. No one, not even Precourt, seems to know how it’s all going to shake out.
Destruction can be a seductive idea in the abstract. We’ve furthered this line of thinking in recent years by artfully attaching the word “creative” to it. Some historians credit Garber’s decision to contract MLS franchises in Tampa and Miami as painful but necessary moves to save the struggling league in 2001. A coldly rational view of the Earthquakes story might calculate that decamping for South Texas earned MLS not just one, but two gleaming soccer-specific stadiums and relatively stable outposts in big-city markets. Columbus may well be left behind by MLS’s growth.
It’s different when it’s your own life scattered to the four winds, of course.
If broached adeptly, failure does have a way of sparking useful and necessary conversations. The ghastly pain of missing out on Russia 2018 is a welcome opportunity to some, the impetus for a slash-and-burn renewal. Anyone who thinks the American youth development landscape is clanking along at anything approaching full efficiency is kidding themselves. In the cases of individual players, the prospect of watching the planet’s biggest tournament from home can provide an extra nudge to reconsider the status quo and strike out on new paths.
At least a few talented US players will be on the move this winter. Erik Palmer-Brown will leave Sporting KC at MLS season’s end to sign with Manchester City with a likely loan to one of the English giant's affiliate clubs. After honing his craft with DC United for the better part of a decade, Bill Hamid has announced his intention to test himself in Europe. Reports and rumors suggest that others in the USMNT pool may follow similar paths in the months ahead.
Both are leaving clubs they’ve called home since adolescence. Both players were can’t miss prospects who’d shine in MLS before reaping significant transfer fees by moving abroad at the proper moment. Win-win situations for all in both the short and long run.
Early in Palmer-Brown’s pro days, Sporting turned down an offer in the neighborhood of $1 million from Italy’s Juventus, suggesting that they envisioned a much bigger return on their investment at some point. It was similar with Hamid, who won MLS’ Goalkeeper of the Year award at the tender age of 23. Instead, both are out of contract, leaving the clubs of their youth with no payday on departure.
To some extent, this too suits all parties. Players are usually more attractive to new clubs when they arrive for free. Under MLS’ convoluted roster rules, the franchise retains their domestic rights to the player merely by tendering a bonafide contract offer, while those who reap a transfer fee lose all claim to that player. So not only do teams not get punished for allowing good players to leave for nothing, they are actually disincentivized from selling assets they helped to develop.
In the real world of the highly lucrative international transfer market, this just isn’t how it’s supposed to work. In most cases, the bigger the transfer fee, the more money there is to spread around to both the selling club and the player as well as the ecosystem that produces them. For many clubs around the world, this revenue stream is the lifeblood of survival. The proceeds from hefty deals can trickle all the way down to the youth level via training compensation and solidarity payments.
For some reason this central component of the world soccer economy has eluded MLS. Maybe they've allowed it to drift to the back burner even as the league spends more and more on talent.
The full details of transfer deals are notoriously difficult to pin down with full accuracy. As best we can tell, the biggest fees in MLS history paid for incoming players have all taken place within the last four seasons. Conversely, most of the biggest outgoing deals happened years ago. Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson, and Maurice Edu all made high-profile European moves in 2008 that still reportedly rank as the top three biggest fees ever paid for MLS talent.
There are exceptions. DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Miazga and Costa Rican Giancarlo Gonzalez more recently drew healthy fees for the Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls, and Columbus, respectively. Overall, outgoing sales have failed to keep pace with the rising levels of outlay on blue-chip arrivals like Michael Bradley and Miguel Almiron.
Garber has spoken often of his ambition to make MLS “a league of choice” for top players both home and abroad. In that light, perhaps he sees this rising trade deficit as a sign of process towards that goal.
It is dangerous, for both club and country, to draw that conclusion.
MLS and its investor/operators are quick to quantify and commodify myriad aspects of the game in the name of running a sound business, even something as abstract as fan loyalty. The metrics tend to get fuzzier when they’re less flattering. When it comes to the pain their actions inflict on the supporters they claim to revere, or the players they aim to showcase. It’s a selective application of the ground rules, and it infuriates those who invest the most time and attention in the league.
The league a bipolar approach to the global transfer market and a confusing outlook on situations like what's happening in Columbus. It seems unsure whether to aspire to the NFL’s crassly cutthroat capitalism, or the more community-oriented mindset of the Bundesliga and others abroad. Are homegrown players priceless jewels or fungible commodities to maximize?
Two decades in, and the league still doesn’t quite know what it is, what it really wants to be, and how best to progress from A to B. The league's confusion about the value of its own assets confirms it.
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