By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 10, 2018) US Soccer Players - MLS brought its summer transfer window to a close late Wednesday night, at midnight Central Time, to be precise. The cutoff time was due to the US Soccer Federation’s headquarters’ location in Chicago.
A mild flurry of transfers and trades flew across the transom over the course of the window’s final days and hours. By my count, around two dozen players entered, left, or moved within the league over the last week of this summer’s window, including a few surprises and a USMNT pool member or two.
Jorge Villafana and Bill Hamid made somewhat unexpected returns home to rejoin the Portland Timbers and DC United, respectively. Highly-touted US youth international Josh Perez, nephew of USMNT legend Hugo Perez, capped his time in Italy by signing with Bob Bradley’s LAFC. A few interesting arrivals rolled in from abroad, the biggest name being ex-Arsenal fullback Bacary Sagna to Montreal.
As a spectacle, however, it still fell short of the breathless trappings of the “deadline day” drama in Europe. MLS consciously began to adopt that gradually, and at times self-consciously, a few years ago. Aside from Cristiano Ronaldo’s sensational move to Juventus, this summer’s activity was a bit quieter in the “big four” leagues than the splashiest examples of the past. That marketplace still draws enormous interest from fans around the world, who eagerly gobble up every report or rumor they can find.
While the most levelheaded club executives typically prefer to stitch up their transactions weeks in advance of the last day, it’s human nature to procrastinate. When the final countdown ticks loudly, clubs make bold moves to upgrade their squads, even at the risk of great financial losses. This summer saw wild twists and turns. FC Barcelona hijacked Roma’s purchase of Brazilian winger Malcom in cliffhanger fashion. Fulham signed five recruits on deadline day alone, running the freshly-promoted club’s summer spending into nine figures. That's the latest example of England’s overheated spending, fuelled by colossal television revenues.
If you like the “last call” metaphor of a bar at closing time, that's Europe. Even in a slow year, leagues like the Premiership and Serie A is a loud, crowded pub with myriad subplots and storylines. MLS is a much more downtempo sort of dive, with less fanfare all around. In pragmatic terms, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Big, rich clubs tend to burn a lot of money in the final hours of transfer windows, much of which turns out to be a waste. Artificial deadlines have a way of inflicting panic and setting fire to even carefully constructed long-term plans. For most of its existence, MLS has shown itself to be a budget-minded, stubbornly cautious organization with a long-range outlook. What makes deadline-day madness so entertaining, however, is the madness part. That’s where MLS falls short.
A sense of urgency powers many of the moves made during the window’s latter stages. That's undergirded by the fear of failure, potentially left behind in cutthroat competitions that mean the world to fans and club leaders alike. Here, too many executives fail to show that they too have that drive to succeed as quickly as possible, that results on the field are always paramount, even if it costs more money than originally planned.
You’d think a team like the Chicago Fire would be feeling that acutely. After half a decade of woeful suffering both on and off the field, the Men in Red finally returned to prominence last year. When aging star Bastian Schweinsteiger signed on for another season, it seemed to give the team one more year to make the most of his abilities as well as other 30-plus standouts like Nemanja Nikolic and Dax McCarty.
Instead, they’ve spent most of the year wallowing in mid- to lower-mid-table, clearly short on quality and depth. So when the close of the window loomed… the Fire actually shrank their roster, waiving veterans Tony Tchani and Kevin Ellis and sending two youngsters out on USL loans. This was in the wake of billionaire Joe Mansueto joining the club’s ownership group. Lately, Chicago has sent out more press releases about their ongoing feud with their most dedicated supporters’ groups than anything about new signings.
The story was similar in Philadelphia, where the Union have put together a solid if unspectacular team. They're in the playoff hunt and seem capable of bigger things with just one or two impact additions. Their ownership group isn't among the league's wealthiest, so few expected a splashy buy. Yet, the lack of any sort of real inbound activity left their long-suffering fans cold. Some will say this is an obvious consequence of no promotion/relegation, though the Fire and Union seem to be suffering in their own particular sort of purgatory.
So what do MLS owners really expect? Lately, we’ve seen signs of the training wheels coming off, even if that mindset changes from one MLS team to another. As long as cost-cutting and limiting player movement rank as higher priorities for most of them than outpacing their peers and winning trophies, the MLS version of deadline day is likely to remain a pale facsimile of Europe's.
There are some reasons for optimism. There will soon be 26 MLS investor/operators. That’s 26 different points of view, including many different nationalities and sensibilities. It's 26 possible sources of pressure on the halting conservatism that at times threatens to stall this league.
We're already seeing that as MLS clubs separate themselves now, taking the calculated risks that cost money. Winning titles and setting new outgoing transfer records certainly helps support that model. This league needs it, because right now MLS is only as strong as its weakest links.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Steve McManaman on North American talent, playing abroad, and La Liga’s US push
- MLS transfer market moves: A turning of the tide?
- Fans, stadiums, and questions for American soccer
- Jesse Marsch, Tyler Adams, and American soccer's situation
Photo courtesy of Robin Alam