Let’s see now. Matt Miazga -- we can define him, at age 20, as one of the most promising of the American youngsters -- is leaving the Red Bulls, going to England to join Chelsea. At the same time, Ashley Cole, who, as it happens, once played for Chelsea but is now a 35-year-old who is coming off being a flop at Roma, will be joining the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The timing is no doubt coincidental, so this can hardly be seen as a trade off. Yet, symbolically that is exactly what it is, and not a very attractive one. MLS sells off its starlet and gets a 35-year-old veteran in return. Shortly before this, Portland’s 26-year-old Jorge Villafana departed to play in Mexico and NYCFC imported the 30-year-old Frederic Brillant, a French player who, it’s safe to say, is unknown to the vast majority of American fans. And the Galaxy was involved in what does look like a trade, sending the 27-year-old defender Omar Gonzalez to Mexico, and bringing in a 32-year-old Belgian replacement, Jelle Van Damme -- another rather less-than-famous name.
The American youngsters with their glowing promise depart, the old guys from Europe with their fading reputations and their question marks arrive.
We are being told, by people whom I respect, that the departure of Miazga is a good move by MLS, that it makes sense. One thing: it definitely makes sense for Miazga, and in these situations the welfare of the players, particularly young ones, should be the first consideration.
So good luck to Miazga at Chelsea. Is it a good move for the Red Bulls? Financially, yes. They’ll get $3.75 million (of course, as would be the case with any club anywhere, there’s no guarantee at all that the money will be wisely used). But the Bulls lose a key player, and their fans lose the chance to see a favorite youngster, born locally, mature as a player.
How, then, is Miazga’s exit good for MLS? Why is it being spoken of as though MLS has made a canny move, when in fact neither MLS nor the Red Bulls had any realistic choice in the matter? Yes, they could have stood squarely in the way of the deal, and blocked the move. In other words, they could have seriously interfered with, possibly wrecked, Miazga’s future.
But where would that have got them? At the end this season, Miazga would be a free agent, free that is of any constraints that MLS or the Red Bulls might like to place on him. He could sign for any team he liked, and that team would not have to pay a transfer fee. MLS could have retained, for one season, a thoroughly disappointed and probably embittered player. But ... goodbye $5 million. Realistically, the Bulls and MLS had only one option.
So, a good business move. A good soccer move? That is highly questionable. Miazga’s departure cannot be seen in isolation. Presumably the defections of Villafana and Gonzalez are also to be seen as good moves. Financially, I suppose they will be.
But what kind of a league do Commissioner Don Garber and his owners think they are building? Well, we’ve been given the answer to that, on many occasions, by Garber himself: A league of choice, one of the top leagues in the world by 2022. Garber can point to a lot of good things about MLS -- rising attendances, widespread TV, new stadiums, but what he can’t offer is any significant rise, from season to season, in the caliber of the soccer. Are the current champions, Portland, playing better soccer than D.C. United played when they won the first MLS title in 1996?
It is not a silly question, and the fact that it can be asked without creating instant hilarity tells you that the answer is No.
The player moves described above give the lie to the dreams of being among the world’s elite in six years time. To have dreams is fine, is essential - no one is going to argue against ambitions, against plans for an exciting future. But there is a huge problem when MLS conducts its business in ways that seriously undermine its own dreams. If the dreams are not believed by the dream creators, then how realistic can they be?
To see MLS as one of the world’s top leagues is not an absurd vision. But it can only become reality when MLS is competitive with the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and so on. Which means that MLS will have to abandon its single-entity shelter and start spending real money.
Once that happens, once it is clear to the soccer world that MLS means business then the dream of world importance can become reality.
Right now MLS is a league dreaming of a future that its own actions are sabotaging. A league that is not creating, or being fed, enough good young players, and cannot hold on to such players when it does get them, a league that is even anxious to sell them, while its coaches continue to import dubious veterans.
I am not saying that is the way that MLS has chosen to operate. But that is the way things have played out, and MLS needs to take a hard look at where it’s going.
Possibly, by some very optimistic long-range thinking, one can imagine money pouring into MLS as European clubs buy up the starlets, and in this way MLS becomes rich enough to join the big guys. But I’d say that’s whistling Dixie.
Garber has done a terrific job in keeping MLS on the financial straight and narrow. There’s no reason to doubt he’ll continue to do that. That’s the business side. But if that gets taken care of at the expense of the soccer side, then big problems are in the offing.
The biggest of these problems is clearly the development of young players. This is an area that has now managed to get itself split into four parts, with MLS, the USSF, the colleges, and national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann all involved, but by no means seeing eye to eye. The very public outburst by Garber in 2014 when he panned Klinsmann for statements that encouraged young Americans to move abroad, and were clearly dismissive of MLS, tells some of the story.
Some of it. Another aspect is the naivete of MLS itself in buying into the myth that the colleges are doing a great job in producing good young players. They are not, and MLS has to know this. Yet it stages, every year, the ridiculous SuperDraft in which most of the players are collegians, and most of them are going nowhere.
The extraordinary extent to which MLS has brainwashed all and sundry -- including itself -- into believing in the importance of the colleges, was made plain in a story on a soccer website after this year’s draft. The No. 1 pick, Jack Harrison, had spent just one semester at Wake Forest. Yet the website ludicrously defined Harrison as a “Wake Forest product.”
Garber’s repeated hosannas to all the great young American players are not in touch with reality. The entire youth development industry (yes, like coaching, youth development has become a business) in the USA should be doing better, should be producing more top players. Three things work against this: the colleges, the reluctance throughout American soccer to fully engage with the Hispanic soccer community, and the pretense by MLS that all is well (a belief mulishly maintained even though it is so obviously undermined by the glossy frivolity of the MLS’s own PseudoDraft).
It is not enough for MLS to keep telling us how much they are spending on youth development, on their academies. Youth development is not merely, or even primarily, a matter of spending money. If it were, then Liverpool and Real Madrid and Chelsea and Barcelona and Juventus etc. would field first teams flooded with their own academy players. They don’t, they don’t even come close.
MLS should not be delighted by, nor should it be praised for, selling its best young players. The better, by far, scenario is that of Jordan Morris. A very talented player who did play college ball and -- despite being encouraged by Klinsmann’s buddy Andres Herzog to move to Germany -- opted to sign with Seattle. But there will not be many so obviously outstanding players coming along, who will be willing to turn down an offer to play in Europe.
Because there is another factor involved -- you could call it glamour, or magic -- but excitement fits nicely. All young American players now grow up with images of the English Premier League or the Spanish La Liga in their minds. Those images are likely to seem more attractive than anything Kansas City or Chicago can offer. There is an excitement attached to the very idea of moving to Europe.
I doubt whether that excitement can be created by the usual marketing ploys or by calling a threadbare draft a SuperDraft. It’s going to take MLS some time to catch up on the excitement front. That comes when a league is alive with top players. Nothing else will do it.
Can there be any doubt that a league that has arrived at a point where it is selling off its most promising young players while bringing in players who are politely described as “experienced” (for which you can read “old”), is a league that, however financially successful it may be, has lost its soccer way?