By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jan 19, 2018) US Soccer Players - The MLS offseason drips with intrigue over international signings in a manner previously unseen in its more than two decades of existence. Rumors abound, a function of a new influx of cash infiltrating the league through big money ownership and initiatives created to expand the power of the salary budget.
While tracking the possibility of arrivals from South America, another trend had taken hold during the MLS version of the silly season. A spate of high profile MLS players have expressed a desire to be traded, giving the winter an extra layer of intrigue.
The phenomenon is another example of the rising tide of player power in a league that is known for using a heavy hand over player movement. Without easily achievable free agency, players are left to try and improve their situation by pushing for a trade. Wantaway players aren’t new to MLS. However, with greater tradable assets available to teams, the chances that a trade demand will be met has gone up dramatically.
The Revolution already pulled the trigger on shipping out one high-priced asset who wanted out of New England. Though Kei Kamara stopped short of going public with anything approaching a “demand”, word out of Foxborough was that the striker did not see his relationship with the Revs working well in 2018. GM Mike Burns took the cue and swapped Kamara to the Vancouver Whitecaps for a pair of draft picks and a split of any transfer fee should Vancouver sell Kamara. The return might not seem overwhelming, but the Revs moved an unhappy player taking up a Designated Player spot.
Following Kamara’s exit, attacker Lee Nguyen also asked for a trade. After missing out on the playoffs for the last two seasons, the 31-year old wants to move on from the club where he’s spent the last six season. While Kamara was expendable in part because the forward was an awkward fit in New England’s system, Nguyen found great success in the middle of the field with the Revs and would be more difficult to replace.
Nguyen remains one of the League’s most productive players on the attacking end of the field. Even at 31, Nguyen is something of a rarity. Not only does he possess a rare combination of skill and soccer intelligence, he’s also an American. That means he doesn’t take up an international roster spot, allowing his club more freedom to build a roster.
That has immense value in MLS. If Orlando City’s acquisition of Sacha Kljestan is any gauge, the market for American attacking midfielders who create chances at a high rate can bring a significant return. If the Revolution accede to Nguyen’s demands, they could grab a haul of players, allocation, or some combination thereof.
According to new head coach Brad Friedel, however, the Revs aren’t going to give Nguyen what he wants. Friedel stated publicly this week that New England has no intention of trading Nguyen and that the midfielder will be an important part of the new beginning under the first-time head coach. The Revolution have a contract with Nguyen, and the obvious hope is that Friedel can convince him to buy into the new project.
Nguyen is still a Rev. Kamara is not. In Columbus, two players who made their desire for a move known are still on the books, though there’s reason to believe that might not be the case much longer. The market is heating up for the Crew’s leading attacking figures, forward Ola Kamara and midfielder Justin Meram. Kamara is among the League most efficient goal-scorers and finished fifth in MLS with 18 in 2017. Meram was Columbus’s best overall player last season, finishing second on the team in goals with 13 and second on the team in assists with seven.
Kamara and Meram appear to have different principal motivations for wanting out of Ohio, though they do have at least one factor in their shared desire to leave in common.
For Kamara, the issue is money. Despite his status among the league’s best finishers, the Norwegian makes just $482,500 according to the MLS Players Association. With interest outside of MLS and a league awash with TAM, Kamara has some leverage. That doesn’t mean the Crew will sell him cheap, and there already suggestions that no one is ready to meet their price.
Meram wants a change of scenery. Since coming out of the University of Michigan in 2011, Meram has only played for the Crew. He’s been to an MLS Cup final with Columbus and established himself as a member of the Iraqi national team in the process, but as he approaches 30 he’s ready to move on.
For both players, the looming possibility of the Crew relocating has to be a factor in their demands for a trade. 2018 threatens to be a very odd year in Columbus, with the slow collapse of support around the club in light of a presumed jump to Austin, Texas. Fans won’t show up in big numbers for a team that will soon be playing elsewhere. Players and coaches are going about the business of trying to build a team dynamic that can win games. That's their job, but there's a shadow hanging over one of the league’s original franchises can’t do much for morale in the locker room.
Meram is an elite wing player in MLS, and like his teammate Kamara, is being shopped with a significant price tag. As of yet, no one is ready to pony up with the Crew want for the player. Interest exists, but it may take some time for a trade to come together.
Nguyen doesn’t seem like to get his wish for a trade. Kamara and Meram are locked in for now, but might still be wearing different colors by the time the season rolls around.
The new world of TAM means the influx of foreign talent will continue in Major League Soccer. It also means players who decide to demand a trade might have a better chance than before to get their way.
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