By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 17, 2019) US Soccer Players - It’s that time of year when temperatures hit triple digits and the clubs across Major League Soccer face the question of whether to sell now, sell later, or sell not at all. The league's growing profile means a few things, many of them good. More spending means better players, which means a higher quality of play. That in turn also means better players.
Signing talented young players, whether developed through the academy systems that are starting to deliver or at foreign clubs, usually means eventually selling those players. Depending on the talent level of the player and his age, the plan might always be to sell when a fair offer arrives. After all, it’s not just about what’s best for the club, but what the player wants.
Aspiration can sometimes explain transfers that look on paper to be one-sided. Money drives most decisions, but the precedent can also play a role. Clubs make themselves more attractive if they show a willingness to move a player to a bigger league when clubs come calling.
No one wants to sacrifice winning for transfer income, however. The goal every season is to win a championship. If a club gets in the habit of selling key players during the season without a clear plan on replacing them, the ability to compete for a title is compromised.
With the summer transfer window open across Europe, speculation about MLS players making the jump across the Atlantic is heating up. The usual chatter about the league’s younger stars is the focus, but there’s also a growing market for more veteran players. MLS players represent good value in 2019. The spike in transfer prices for top talent opens up a secondary, less cash-happy exchange for players who have strong resumes, but at lesser levels of the game.
Hype doesn’t drive that market. Clubs are anxious to minimize risk.
The New York Red Bulls built a reputation in recent years that makes them one of the most talked about MLS teams during every European transfer period. It seems that each season, New York has a player or two wanted by clubs abroad.
In the winter of 2018, the Red Bulls sold 19-year old midfielder Tyler Adams to RB Leipzig of the Bundesliga. The fee reported (but not confirmed) was $3 million. In 2016, the club sent Matt Miazga to Chelsea for a fee of reportedly $5 million. Back in 2012, the Red Bulls sold Tim Ream for somewhere around $3 million. That transfer was early enough that it might not be correct to connect it to the current trend. Nevertheless, this is what New York does. The barrier to selling players has never been higher enough to prevent moves from happening.
All of those moves happened in the winter transfer window after the MLS season was already over. The Red Bulls might be suffering because of the loss of Adams in 2019, but they hung on to him until their 2018 campaign concluded.
Aaron Long didn’t come through the Red Bulls’ academy system, but he is a near-perfect representation of how the club’s pathway is supposed to work. New York signed Long to its USL team back in 2016, when he was still executing a shift from midfield to center back.
Long won the USL’s Defender of the Year Award in 2016 and earned his way to the first team in MLS. Immediately installed as a starter, he played 31 MLS games in 2017 before collecting the MLS Defender of the Year Award in 2018. The Red Bulls didn’t make Long’s talent, but the club did foster it. His remarkable climb is a testament to New York’s willingness to use its knowledge and resources to work unpolished diamonds.
Now it's Long connected to transfer rumors. midway through the 2019 MLS season and fresh off an excellent Gold Cup campaign where he was named to the tournament’s Best XI, the interest is reportedly there. The identities of the suitors and the potential price will come later. For now, the question is whether the Reds Bulls are best served to wait until winter or take an offer for what might be their best player right now.
The reasons for waiting are obvious. Long is a crucial part of the Red Bulls at the moment. It's a season where goal-scoring is difficult. The effectiveness of New York's vaunted press is waning. With his excellent positional play and top-level athleticism for a center back, Long helps Chris Armas’s team balance out its deficiencies.
Selling Long would mean replacing Long. As currently constructed, the Red Bulls would turn to Egyptian defender Amro Tarek and 2019 draftee Sean Nealis to plug the hole. Tarek received the bulk of the playing time during Long’s absence with the USMNT and has 15 starts in various situations across the season. Nealis has fewer than 450 minutes to his name in his rookie season.
It would be unfair to ask anyone already on the roster to play to Long’s level should the club decide now is the time to take advantage of interest in him. Moving him now would create a hole in the lineup and make the Red Bulls a worse team.
Replacing Long during the summer transfer window is possible, but difficult. There are no obvious names in play via an MLS trade. Finding a signing from outside of the league likely means the combo of Targeted Allocation Money and an international roster spot, both issues for the club. Any difficulty integrating a new addition could upend the defense and ruin the season.
The disconnect between the MLS and European transfer windows forces tough decisions. If a club wants a player now, when European clubs are in preseason, there’s always a chance they won’t want to make the same move midseason. By then, rosters are full and the money tighter.
Ream earned his move to England after arriving from college soccer and excelling in MLS. Miazga was the first big success of the Red Bulls academy as a player they reared in-house before selling to Chelsea. Adams was even further validation of the Red Bulls system, breaking into the first team as a teenager before jumping to the Bundesliga.
Long is something else entirely. He reinforces the conclusion that the Red Bulls don’t need to get a player at 14 or 15, or even in the first round of the SuperDraft, to develop him into a star.
Selling Long now would be difficult from a competitive standpoint. There might not even be a real offer on the table. History tells us they probably won’t make a move now and that Long will finish the season in MLS. Regardless, what he represents is a unique story in MLS and a credit to the Red Bulls’ process. Sell him or keep him, they still win.
More From Jason Davis:
- Taking the 2019 US Open Cup seriously
- The 2019 transfer season in MLS
- The next player for FC Dallas
- North Carolina and MLS
Photo by Rob Erikson - ISIPhotos.com