By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 27, 2017) US Soccer Players - The word “trend” in a modern context suggests something ephemeral. Even if the shift of direction eventually morphs into the status quo, the initial push towards establishing it can only happen once. Trends aren’t fads, but they also aren’t exactly accepted as permanent from the outset, either.
It’s with that definition of “trend” in mind that we consider the ramping up of the Major League Soccer offseason signing spree. Clubs across the league rush to bring in fresh talent to better keep up with the quickening arms race fostered by another increase in Targeted Allocation Money. 2017 revealed that competing for a championship will require both higher spending and a better understanding of how to make that investment matter.
Simply put, not everyone can be Toronto FC, with a trio of ultra high-priced Designated Players and a whip-smart front office able to build quality and depth via every mechanism in the MLS rulebook. Acquiring talent can’t be a matter of reaching out to wantaway European-based players and backing up a Brinks truck to their front doors. Digging into the soft parts of the international transfer market to make the money go as far as possible becomes the necessity.
Atlanta didn’t break new ground when they dived into the South American market in their inaugural year. However, the success they had as an expansion club with the likes of Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad, and Hector Villalba was the impetus for a new emphasis on younger players of Latin American origin with higher ceilings than previously seen in MLS.
The idea of buying a player and potentially selling him on has rarely been part of the MLS calculus in the past. A look at the signings so far this winter across the league and the rumors that are swirling around it indicate a push for a new type of business. It's a model tied both to on-field success in 2018 and the potential to recoup or make money by selling players.
LAFC general manager John Thorrington specifically pointed to Atlanta’s model when talking about building a team from scratch. Thorrington wasn’t just talking about Atlanta’s cadre of South Americans, but that element is central to his identification of the club as one to emulate. The league’s lone 2018 expansion entry went so far as to sign former MLS designated player Juan Pablo Angel as a technical consultant specifically to tap into the South American pipeline. Thorrington and head coach Bob Bradley know that the faster their club can turn American dollars into under-scouted South American players who are beginning to see MLS as a stepping stone to bigger opportunities in Europe.
MLS is still caught in between, refusing to fully embrace the role of a selling league. The trend of players moving from south to north will help hasten that evolution. MLS is richer and more stable financially than most leagues in the Western Hemisphere not named Liga MX, but it comes in well behind the money and prestige available across the Atlantic. It’s only natural that MLS use it’s relative wealth and status to bring in players who can boost the quality level on the field, then sell them on to help fund further advancements in the league’s evolution.
The league might be better served to allow its teams to spend freely, without the constraints of the labyrinthian salary budget rules. The path they've chosen has finally reached a turn where the willingness of owners to pull out their checkbooks and spend is potentially transformative.
There’s an under-23 bent to the names popping up in the rumor mill and on the incoming transfer sheet for MLS this winter. Atlanta United is locked in a tug-of-war with Independiente over 19-year old Argentine Ezequiel Barco. The Red Bulls are going after their own Primera attacker in 22-year old Alejandro Romero Gamarra of Huracan. Across the Hudson, NYCFC is reportedly wooing 20-year old Paraguayan Jesus Medina from Libertad. Portland might have eyes on one 19-year old Paraguayan, while Orlando is said to have signed another..
There’s more, across a spectrum ranging from pure speculation to in-process. The new injection of discretionary TAM and the group of owners willing to spend it is a major part of why. So is the natural maturation of MLS as a part of the soccer ecosystem. Atlanta and LAFC are new, but the league is a now-established part of the in-crowd of clubs from Quebec down to Tierra del Fuego. Agents and administrators don’t need much prompting to pick up the phone when word is out that MLS teams have more than ever to spend on transfer fees.
It will only take a championship for a team exploiting the player market in South America or a club or two selling South American on for a profit to push the current rash of interest and signings from MLS trend to feature of the transfer window. What’s good for one franchise typically becomes a model for many others.
MLS has problems holding onto some young talent. See Kekuta Manneh moving to Pachuca for the latest example. American players are shut out of some of the growth in salaries because the league’s initiatives incentivize teams to go after foreign talent. The new TAM rules can artificially raise salaries in a particular range because clubs are better off over-paying and buying down.
Still, the league’s reach expanding deeper into South America should drive the quality of the competition up while at the same time giving MLS a better international profile and potentially providing a conduit for transfer fees it has never been capable of generating before.
“Trend” doesn't convey permanence the way we use it in 2017, but good trends don’t just fade away. Eventually, they just become part of the system. Is Major League Soccer's fascination with young South American talent and example of just that?
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