By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Sep 2, 2019) US Soccer Players – For years, many called MLS a retirement league. Aging European superstars crossed the Atlantic for what critics decried was an easy payday. The young talent from South America joining the league over the past few seasons pushes against that, but it's still an easy criticism to make. It shows up every time a European player of a certain age signs up with Major League Soccer. That's still the case even if MLS is no longer the likeliest destination.
Competition for name players has gotten fiercer globally in recent years. Clubs in Australia, Japan, and China began to compete for much of that talent. MLS may offer players a welcome feeling of anonymity and a chance to live in the United States, but they don't often share that same willingness to spend. Now, it's possible to add Argentina and Brazil to that list.
With the summer transfer window coming to an end, a number of Europeans in the twilight of their careers opted to play in South America. Among the most notable was 36-year-old Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi who signed with Boca Juniors in Argentina. In nearby Brazil, something is also happening. Atletico Madrid defender Juanfran, who is 34, signed with Sao Paolo. Former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli, who played for Nice and Olympique Marseille in France the past three seasons, saw his name linked with Flamengo in Brazil. He ultimately turned down the move in favor of Brescia in his native Italy.
These are all players who could have easily ended up in MLS. Is Brazil, for example, the new hot place for aging superstars? If so, how will it impact MLS? These are all good questions and ones MLS needs to ponder going forward. While MLS has trended younger in terms of its European stars, you'd think this wasn't really an issue. Part of the reason for this could be the rosier financial picture that has emerged in Brazil over the last few years.
We know that Brazil is the world's biggest exporter of players. What they haven't been up to this point is a destination. This summer saw Brazilian clubs considering their options in the global transfer market. The Balotelli offer, for example, would have been historic had he agreed to it. The last Italian to feature in Brazil was former Parma striker Marco Osio, who played the 1995-96 season with Palmeiras.
Brazil's reputation for troubled clubs and confusing competitions may be changing. Leading the way are Palmeiras and Flamengo. A 2018 report compiled by Itau BBA, a Brazilian bank, the two clubs combined made up almost a quarter of all the profits among the country's 27 biggest clubs. Sao Paulo is the country's third-wealthiest club, followed closely by Corinthians. In a Forbes Mexico list published the same year valued Corinthians at $462.2 million, making it first in Latin America. It should come as no surprise that these clubs are vying for Europeans after getting their financial houses in order.
Soccer is a global market. Always has been, always will. As the soccer world expands to new countries, MLS will need to compete for talent. The league's single-entity structure is largely responsible for keeping it afloat in those early years. MLS continues to expand to new markets, a sign that new owners are bullish on the game. Single-entity, however, also stops teams from spending oodles of cash on players on the global market.
The Designated Player Rule and Targeted Allocation Money allowed clubs sign the likes of Carlos Vela. That's been good for MLS. What hasn't are the comparisons to their nearest neighbor. Liga MX teams are among the wealthiest in the region, proving tough to beat at Champions League level. It doesn't help that Liga MX is also the most popular domestic league on US television. How does MLS compete? By building better teams.
MLS may be down on the veteran player sweepstakes for now, but they're not out. The level of competition is changing along with its cost. MLS has no choice but to respond to the market. What that means for the league's strict economic model is once again in question, but we already know that some clubs want to spend.
How the league as a whole responds to more challengers for player signatures isn't a given. This is no longer a league content to wait for players to work out a free transfer. They're interested in full involvement in both directions, buying and selling players while realizing what that means for the league. MLS as a whole and its teams have to up their game in order to sign top talent of any age and remain competitive in the global market.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Moving on from Rivalry Week
- Q&A with Sporting KC defender Seth Sinovic
- Tactical questions for five European clubs
- 5 Americans to watch in Europe in 2019-20
Photo by Bill Barrett - ISIPhotos.com