By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 10, 2023) US Soccer Players – There are a range of options available to Major League Soccer teams who find themselves falling short of expectations and in need of reinforcements when the summer transfer window opens.
This year, Inter Miami provided an example of something approaching a best-case scenario by signing the world’s top player, Lionel Messi, on a free transfer, along with his friends and longtime FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. The Herons completed their midseason makeover by acquiring rising South American youngsters Diego Gomez, Facundo Farias, and Tomas Aviles via the league’s Under-22 initiative, for a set of fees reportedly in the neighborhood of $15 million combined.
“There were some legal issues that arose after the arrivals of (Messi), Busquets and Jordi,” Miami head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said when Alba was introduced on August 1. “We could only consider U-22 players, up to three, due to salary considerations and MLS rules. Within that context, and in looking at these players and where the squad needed to improve the most… they were the first names that we came up with. We made it an objective for ourselves to focus on those three players.”
Across the continent in Southern California, the LA Galaxy entered the Leagues Cup break on a run of form nearly as weak as Miami’s. The Galaxy is averaging a point per game as they lag second from bottom in the Western Conference table, wracked by a series of devastating injuries to regular starters, most prominently Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s torn ACL.
Despite having long ago set the standard for lavish outlays, that was not an option this time around. Violations of MLS salary budget and roster guidelines during the 2019 season resulted in the Galaxy receiving a package of sanctions last December that included a prohibition on registering any players who required the receipt of an International Transfer Certificate from outside of the United States and Canada during this summer’s window. So any additions to their squad would have to come from within MLS or the lower divisions, or by adding free agents after the window closed and before the leaguewide roster freeze takes effect on September 2.
“Under the constraints and the conditions that we had, you have a very small sample size of players that you can actually get to, right?” LA Galaxy head coach and sporting director Greg Vanney told reporters last week. “When you’re talking about free agents, of which there’s only so many out there. And then you’re talking about working inside the league, of which there’s not a ton of trades that happen inside the league anymore. There are some, but it’s not like it once used to be, when trades were kind of the real way you moved people around.”
In light of all that, the Galaxy are generally judged to have done well to bring in five newcomers over the past several weeks. Four arrived via intra-league trades (Tony Alfaro from New York City FC, Micheal Barrios from the Colorado Rapids, Diego Fagundez from Austin FC, and Edwin Cerrillo from FC Dallas) and one, Japanese international Maya Yoshida, as a free-agency signing after the international-signing ban expired on August 2 but before the roster freeze.
Under the league’s complicated roster-building regulations, one of the prime risks involved in such tactics is that short-term upgrades can hamper other moves in the long run. LA maintains that this flurry of activity is not about quick fixes or panic buying and still provides ample flexibility down the line.
“When you’re working inside the league, you’re at the mercy of clubs being willing to let guys go, or to be willing to move guys. But we were able to get, I thought, just a really good core group of guys that can help us this year, but also can play a role for us next year,” said Vanney, who alluded to “working the phones” to track down “great players at frugal rates.”
The Galaxy’s club-record sale of young defender Julian Araujo to Barcelona last winter, for a reported $6 million fee, looks to be a key element here. Vanney said last week that thanks to that transfer, the club’s reserves of allocation money are “not bad” even after the wheeling and dealing of recent weeks.
“We still have the majority of that saved for us plus the (league-wide allocation) funds that come into play next year, plus our options that we have through the club,” Vanney said. “So we’re sitting in a positive position to be aggressive in the winter window as well.… I thought everyone did a great job of working together to be intelligent, to help the team now but also to make sure that we keep ourselves ready for the next one.”
Inter Miami’s moves were different. The Herons had to negotiate a mutual contract termination with Rodolfo Pizarro and buy down midfielder Gregore’s salary cap number with allocation money to make room for Messi and Busquets. They too have been laboring under salary-budget sanctions due to 2020 roster violations, including the loss of $2.27 million in allocation money across this season and last. Even after leaving some open space before the season amid the possibility that Messi and other players would decide to take their talents to South Florida, chief soccer officer and sporting director Chris Henderson has hinted that more juggling will be required in the future as well.
Miami’s overhaul is already paying big dividends with a deep run in Leagues Cup that has lifted optimism about their prospects for a dramatic late run into the MLS Cup Playoffs. That could well be attributable above all to Messi’s otherworldly excellence, which doesn’t exactly offer a path for others to follow. The Galaxy’s situation may provide a better gauge of how seasons really can be reversed in midstream in contemporary MLS.
While Miami has additional opportunities for redemption via their Leagues Cup and US Open Cup runs, LA’s final 12 league matches are all that’s on the table in Carson. A late surge from 13th place into the postseason would likely push their summer business into consideration as one of the most resourceful windows in MLS history.
More from Charles Boehm:
- 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 Nashville SC