By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 17, 2023) US Soccer Players – Jim Curtin is MLS’s second-longest tenured head coach. He’s rapidly approaching the 10-year mark with the Philadelphia Union, and his successes on the sidelines and native-son status make him the de facto face of the club. He’s as proud as anyone of the Union’s blue-collar, academy-centered competitive model and has been a key architect in its achievements over the past four years.
So he had every reason to defend it to the hilt after Tuesday’s stinging 4-1 Leagues Cup semifinal loss to Inter Miami at Subaru Park. Many outsiders wouldn’t have been surprised by the latest triumph in Miami’s ongoing winning streak since the arrival of Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets. For those familiar with Philly’s identity, though, the manner of it was.
Roared on by an overflow crowd mostly determined to shower Messi and his teammates with hostility rather than adoration, the home side created ample scoring chances, as indicated by their superior expected-goals tally, simply failing to convert them when needed. It was their usually rugged pressing and defending that let them down. The circumstances could be seen to offer hope that Philly’s value-oriented philosophy is capable of matching superstar-driven projects like Miami’s.
Yet Curtin did not hesitate to ring the bell in terms of its seismic effects on the rest of the league, even barely a month into the Messi era. Could more Designated Player slots be added, or extra allocation money, or just higher spending ceilings in general?
“One hundred percent, I think the league rules are going to change,” he said in his postgame press conference. “I think him (Messi) coming here is going to change a ton. And it should. The training wheels are off, I think.”
Big-money roster builds have been as likely to be cautionary tales as success stories lately. Toronto FC’s build around Italian internationals Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi failed to launch despite pushing it to the top of the MLS wage bill, according to MLSPA documents. The LA Galaxy sits just beneath TFC in that list thanks to big names like Riqui Puig and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, and it exits the Leagues Cup pause near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
Perhaps Miami’s massive summer transfer window is best judged with at least a few more months of hindsight. Still, not only did Messi, Busquets, and fellow former FC Barcelona player Jordi Alba arrive on free transfers last month. The Herons splashed out many millions on the young South American trio of Diego Gomez, Facundo Farias, and Tomas Aviles via the Under-22 initiative. If all six become regular starters, it makes for more than half of a new and much upgraded XI, even before delving into the full extent of Messi’s transcendent quality and the impact of new coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s tactics.
“So now you have a player who’s the best player of all time,” said Curtin. “You have Busquets, who’s quietly probably the best holding midfielder, you could argue, of all time, whether you have him two, three, whatever you want to argue. Alba is pretty good at soccer as well. And the young guys that they’ve just spent a ton of money on that you guys haven’t really seen yet that are coming in, I mean, these are real, real players. So yeah, they’re only going to get better.”
The force of Curtin’s predictions were such that as he stepped off the dais at the end of the conference, he wondered aloud if he’d sounded too dire about his own club’s model. There was little doubt that he sees big shifts ahead in how MLS teams allocate resources, with the returns on Inter Miami’s investments already rolling in.
“That Miami team is going to go. Their ownership’s going to spend like crazy and they’re going to make them the best team in the league, and they might already be one of the best teams in the league,” Curtin observed. “So yeah, that’s coming and I don’t think anything’s stopping that. It’s the way it’s going.”
He wasn’t alone in that. As a native of Weston, Florida, Union and USMNT veteran Alejandro Bedoya is familiar with the ambitions of IMCF and their ownership, led by business magnates Jorge and Jose Mas and David Beckham.
“Miami is pushing the envelope,” said Bedoya. “I’ve known Jorge, obviously being from South Florida, and so I’ve known this was coming from that ownership group. I think many felt that as well. So it’s great. It’s good for the league. It’s good for soccer in our country, For our region. I just think on a global level, MLS, with the World Cup coming here, I think we find ourselves at an inflection point.”
Nashville SC will host Miami in Saturday’s Leagues Cup final at Geodis Park, and also happened to join MLS alongside Inter Miami in 2020. While Miami had more lows than highs in the ensuing years, NSC has been consistently competitive from the jump thanks to a pragmatic construction process more akin to Philadelphia’s, albeit with some bigger outlays like reigning league MVP Hany Mukhtar and new DP striker Sam Surridge. Nashville expects MLS’s generally stringent spending controls to loosen as well.
“There’s no question,” general manager Mike Jacobs told USSoccerPlayers.com on Wednesday, predicting that “this summer could be a really critical time” in the league’s long-range evolution. “I would echo what Bedoya said from the standpoint of an inflection point, maybe a tipping point. when you see investments being made in players of that kind of profile, when you see the ability that one, two or three players have in changing the fortunes of a franchise, my guess is you’re going to see ownership groups take really critical looks at how they invest, and how teams are built.”
The voices we’re less likely to hear out loud at this point are probably those of the most cost-conscious MLS clubs, those who find roster rules important for restraining the power of their wealthier and larger-market counterparts. Even at that, it’s noteworthy that a club like Real Salt Lake, centered in one of the league’s smallest population areas, has broken its own records with millions of dollars in new acquisitions like DP striker Chicho Arango.
Jacobs previously worked at another such team, Sporting Kansas City. He emphasizes the outlook of judicious spending as a mindset that can coexist with larger dollar amounts across the board, not only in MLS but other North American professional sports as well.
“You see so many teams who spend a lot of money don’t do well. You see some great teams that maybe spend more frugally or more thoughtfully, and do well,” he said. “The idea of ‘Moneyball’ becomes this backhanded compliment sometimes. Really, the idea of spending is a part of ‘Moneyball,’ but ‘Moneyball’ ’s theory is about acquiring the undervalued, right? I think data can interpret what value is. Money you spend can determine what value is. But it’s less about who spends and who doesn’t, and it’s more about how you spend.”
MLS leaders could also have to face up to another cascading consequence of Messi’s impact. In a league where more money is spent more aggressively, finer details like allocation money sums and salary-budget tallies stand to grow more important. Devoted fans and pundits have long been frustrated by a lack of transparency on this front.
Something may have to give there, especially in light of recent rule violations and subsequent sanctions handed down to Miami and the Galaxy. If highly prominent franchises like these are pushing the envelope while prospering on the pitch, it’s natural to ask for more information about the envelope’s dimensions.
The various board and committee meetings that will unfold during the offseason are the real theaters where this debate will land this winter. When a team like the Union suggests it can get more out of its thus-far effective approach, others are surely paying close attention.
“You hear rumblings about maybe some (rules) changes happening in the offseason and we’ll see. There’s no secret that some money well spent allows you to bring in more quality players, more quality depth,” said Bedoya. “As a club, since I’ve been here, I think we’ve definitely been playing at our max. Maximum, everything we’ve got out. I’m proud of the group. Obviously frustrating loss tonight, but we’ll regroup, we’ve got an important game this weekend. And we’ll see what happens in this offseason.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- The LA Galaxy’s new take on a midseason rebuild in MLS
- What we learned from the first half of the 2023 Leagues Cup
- USMNT fall 2023 look ahead
- MLS, Liga MX step into new territory with 2023 Leagues Cup
- Rundown of European-based USMNT players’ 2023/24 season outlooks
Photo by Inter Miami