By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 31, 2021) US Soccer Players – Let’s pretend you run a professional sports team. Your goal is to win championships. Everything you do should be working towards that end. Failing to win a title means reassessing your approach to the process. Professional sports are often about timing. As your players age and new players become available, the trick is to bridge eras so you can stay in the hunt every season.
It’s easier in theory. Failure eventually comes for everyone. If you miss the playoffs in North American pro sports, it can serve as a stark reminder of that fact and spark massive change throughout an organization. No one, especially those paying the bills, likes to lose.
When failure comes, clubs have many ways to climb their way back to being contenders. Particularly in a structure where rules determine spending, there’s no one way to build a winner.
Make no mistake, though. Spending more money than anyone else usually makes getting back to the top a lot easier. When clubs come up short of their goals, owners enter the next offseason with a choice. Lay down a big bet and shorten the odds, or take the more treacherous budget-minded path.
No club makes that decision without considering the bottom line, though there are clubs that are more willing to spend ahead of potential success. In American soccer, those are the clubs that have pushed the professional game along while most of their contemporaries would prefer to play it safe.
If the pretend professional sports team that you run in this imaginary scenario is a Major League Soccer operation, the question of how to build a winner is fairly complicated. Spending lots of money helps when it comes to competing for a championship in Major League Soccer, but there are strict rules in place that prevent you from spending however you want.
Enforced parity makes it easier to justify keeping the salary budget low, particularly when clubs with minimal spending achieve a measure of success. Following a remarkable 2021 for the team with the league’s smallest payroll, the Colorado Rapids, observers around North America speculated that other clubs might try to copy their spendthrift ways.
That may happen. Colorado copycats are sure to pop up in places where owners don’t have deep pockets or simply see their MLS clubs as businesses to be run as lean as possible. Still, clubs that have fewer reservations about spending have created the modern version of MLS. They’re willing to challenge the league’s conservative bloc on that front.
Toronto FC is the unquestioned leader of that movement. Big-spending in MLS doesn’t exist if not for the machinations of AEG and the LA Galaxy a decade-and-a-half ago. Meanwhile, it’s the Reds who have elbowed their way to the front of the league’s more progressive spenders.
This offseason looks set to reinforce the club’s credentials. Reports swirling about the signing of Napoli and Italy forward Lorenzo Insigne are numerous enough to believe that the 30-year-old’s move to Canada is imminent. Of course, Toronto FC has a history of convincing talented Italians to make the jump to North America. Back in 2015, they signed Juventus attacker Sebastian Giovinco in a stunning coup that changed the complexion of the club. That sparked the run to back-to-back MLS Cup final appearances, winning it in 2017.
The numbers connected with the Insigne rumors are difficult to parse, in part because MLS is constantly pushing past existing barriers to create new norms. Per conventional wisdom about top-end salaries paid across the league, the Insigne numbers seem unbelievable.
It wasn’t that long ago that no team was paying any one player more than a million or so dollars a year. As of September of 2021, there were more than 20 players making more than $2 million per season according to the MLS Players Association.
Insigne isn’t TFC’s only big-name target if other reports are accurate. Whether any of those other links prove to be legitimate or not, it’s clear that the Canadian club is pushing its financial weight into the quest for another championship. Hiring Bob Bradley as the club’s new head coach and sporting director is an indication of the ambition Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment holds for its soccer club.
Despite its slide to the back of the pack, TFC still holds enough prestige to combine with its cash to entice big names. The growing reputation of MLS outside of North America certainly helps. While it’s possible to imagine that Toronto could offer enough to convince a player with Insigne’s resume to make the jump to MLS regardless of prior club success or geography, TFC has plenty more going for it than just spending power.
That fact puts into stark relief the issues facing a number of other MLS clubs trying to build a winner this winter. Toronto FC appears ready to again raise the bar on what it means to invest in building an MLS champion. Other teams need a plan before they can even begin to imagine following the Reds example. Turns out that in MLS, even the simplest approach, spending to build a winner, is more complicated than it seems.
More From Jason Davis:
- Americans playing for trophies in Europe
- The emergence of Brenden Aaronson and Miles Robinson
- USMNT alums coaching in MLS
- The changing scope of free agency in MLS
Photo by Howard C Smith – ISIPhotos.com