By Ridge Mahoney
If he goes for the money, Stuart Holden is already headed for Europe even if he hasn't signed a deal.
Whatever he wanted from Scottish club Aberdeen, it was too much, as Coach Mark McGhee said last month he couldn't afford Holden. A few English League Championship (second division) and Premier League teams are interested, and so what chance is there for MLS, which summoned him to the league offices last week to offer a tenfold increase, more or less, than the $34,728 he earned in 2009? Plus bonuses, of course.
An offer from an EPL club can certainly trump any Scottish club other than Celtic or Rangers, not to mention MLS, but there could be a few conditions attached. The lower-tier teams operate on much smaller budgets than the Big Four as well as Tottenham, Everton and Aston Villa, and many of them could well be dragged into a relegation battle.
This last item could be important. Former U.S. forward Brian McBride ended up going to Fulham instead of Blackburn at the last minute when a Rovers' team executive insisted on inserting a relegation clause by which McBride's salary would be cut in half if Blackburn fell into the second tier. McBride balked and Fulham, whose coach at the time, Chris Coleman, had been monitoring the situation closely, swept in to make a deal.
Such clauses are not uncommon, even though teams relegated from the Premier League receive "balloon" payments for two years to assist their attempts to climb back up. And a half-price EPL contract would still far exceed the MLS maximum salary, but is this the right time for Holden to slog through a harsh English winter with a World Cup callup pending in May?
Holden might be short on time to establish himself as a bonafide EPL starter, which is what he would need to get sharp enough to hit the final World Cup training camp in top shape.
Houston coach Dominic Kinnear would green-light a Designated Player contract for Holden, as he's a staunch supporter of using those slots and the money for American players if at all possible. But last summer Houston instead signed Mexican forward Luis Angel Landin to an 18-month loan at a DP salary, which a league executive confirmed will exceed $1 million next season, so unless it trades for a second DP slot, the Dynamo can't go that route.
MLS commissioner Don Garber, as he did years ago with Cobi Jones, has personally intervened. An offer worth more than $300,000 per year is on the table, and even if he could make a lot more in England or Scotland, Holden should seriously consider staying stateside. He will be much more important to the Dynamo next season than he was in 2009 because Ricardo Clark is headed overseas this winter to Italian club Livorno. The Dynamo midfield is about to undergo a second extensive makeover in as many seasons, having lost Dwyane De Rosario to Toronto after the 2008 season.
Kinnear can probably cover for Holden by moving Brad Davis into the middle and giving Corey Ashe first shot to start at left mid, yet Kinnear must also begin grooming a replacement for rightie Brian Mullan, who finished the regular season fairly well after an indifferent campaign and regressed somewhat in the playoffs.
Kinnear has already stated he may move second-year sensation Geoff Cameron from the back line to his regular position of midfield, and a trident of Holden and Cameron and Davis would give Houston perhaps the best triumvirate in MLS.
Holden can't sign a short-term deal with MLS, simply because there is no such thing for a promising American player. Like Landon Donovan, and Tim Howard before him, MLS would want to lock him up to a long-term deal, which greatly increases the transfer fee it can request if a suitable offer comes from overseas.
What about the time-honored buyout clause, by which MLS and the player's representatives pre-negotiate a transfer price written into the contract that, if met, obligates MLS to sell the player, assuming he can agree on salary and other terms with said clubs? Again, such clauses are extremely rare in league contracts, which is one reason Taylor Twellman could do little but complain two years ago when MLS turned down offers from Preston North End that began at $800,000 and went as high as $2 million.
Preston broke the trend somewhat by making a big offer during the January window, but Twellman had already signed a new MLS contract that paid him about $400,000 a year and didn't contain a buyout clause. The Revs played hardball and the league fell in line. Had he turned it down, he'd have been free to take the Preston deal unencumbered. But there's a lot to be said about the bird in the hand, especially since he'd been slapped down with a $24,000 contract by MLS upon returning to America after bypassing the SuperDraft and laboring for two years in Germany without playing a first-team game.
And if MLS refused to insert a buyout clause into the contracts of Donovan and Twellman, it's not going to so accommodate Stuart Holden. But in MLS he will play a lot for a good team and set himself up for a move to Europe soon enough.