By Ridge Mahoney
Contrary to popular belief, the second half of the MLS season began Thursday, and not in late June when the league resumed play following a 15-day World Cup break.
The secondary phase of the North America transfer window, which lasts 30 days, opened July 15, and there's some reason to believe this month-long player bazaar might be among the most active in league history.
Though teams are still constrained by a salary cap – set at $2.55 million this season under terms of a new collective bargaining agreement – they have the option of signing as many as three Designated Players. The third entails paying a luxury tax of $250,000 in addition to whatever salary the player commands. Each DP costs his team a salary-budget charge of $335,000, yet teams can use allocation money to reduce that hit as low as $150,000.
While some teams have yet to sign even one, and a few of those that have employed a DP are hesitant to do so again, New York has grabbed Thierry Henry to accompany its first DP, Juan Pablo Angel, and are actively engaged in discussions to sign a third. The Los Angeles Galaxy, which could lose Landon Donovan to a foreign club this summer and are waiting for David Beckham to heal from yet another injury, are in the market as well. One of the purported targets, Brazilian wizard Ronaldinho, is supposedly headed to Flamengo from AC Milan, though the Italian club says it has yet to receive an offer.
Just the fact Ronaldinho wants to go home to play should warn off MLS teams. In the cases of Romario and Edmundo, to name just two, said players wanted to do whatever the hell they wanted off the field and play hard when they felt like it, which isn’t really the MLS way.
In publicity terms, DPs will make the biggest splashes. Several teams, however, are counting on recent signings of modest proportions to solve existing problems.
Swiss striker Blaise Nkufo began training with Seattle this week and could debut this weekend when the Sounders play Glasgow Celtic in a friendly. He’s the big (6-foot-4) striker the Sounders have been looking for to augment tricky but tiny forward Fredy Montero and attacker Freddie Ljungberg. Seattle has been leaking goals, so the issues go beyond the attack, but lackluster showings by Montero and Ljungberg are contributing causes to a poor (5-8-4) record.
Chivas USA has also been struggling in its first season under Coach Martin Vazquez, who has added Venezuelan forward Giancarlo Maldonado and Mexican midfielder Rodolfo Espinoza. Also signed was Brazilian MLS veteran Paulo Nagamura, who returns to the league after a stint in Mexico.
All three were in action Thursday as Chivas USA opened SuperLiga play with a 2-1 loss to Puebla. Espinoza paid immediate dividends; his cross in the 85th minute gave defender Michael Umana a chance he headed home for his team’s only goal. Chivas USA may be prompted to make another move, if U.S. defender/midfielder Jonathan Bornstein heads south to join Atlas, Atlante, or UNAL Tigres.
This week also yielded the departure of the latest DP bust, Mexican striker Luis Angel Landin. He arrived a year ago, ballyhooed as the Dynamo’s first DP, and battled through fitness concerns and injury setbacks without much success. Yet for Dynamo, the arrival of another ex-MLS player, Joseph Ngwenya, has already proven to be more important than Landin’s failure.
Ngwenya scored both Houston goals in a 2-1 defeat of Mexican powerhouse Pachuca in another SuperLiga match Thursday. The signing of Landin last summer was supposed to boost the Dynamo’s chances of success against foreign foes as well as those in MLS, but instead a member of the 2007 MLS Cup-winning team has come back to bolster its hopes in 2010.
In another month, the window will have closed and scrutiny will be focused on DPs, their salaries, their success or failure on the field, their affect on attendances, etc. Yet the other moves, and there will be many, will be just as influential, if not as dramatic.