The Turkish city of Trabzon holds a cherished place in my thoughts. Not that I’ve ever been there, or will ever go. But in my youth I read a most wonderful novel, “The Towers of Trebizond” -- and the ancient town with the lovely name of Trebizond has lost none of its attraction for me by becoming a modern Turkish town with an ugly name that sounds like a prescription drug -- Trabzon.
All of this has my mind in a ferment right now, as I read of the sudden departure of Fabian Castillo - the brilliant young Colombian of FC Dallas -- for Turkey. For Trabzon, no less, where he will join the local club Trabzonspor.
A huge adventure for the young star, just as it was for the characters in the novel -- though they proceeded slowly by land and had to cope all the way with a bad-tempered camel. Castillo has flown in, been greeted riotously by fans, and carried shoulder-high through the airport.
There are, it seems, all sorts reasons why trading Castillo is held to be a good move for Dallas. No doubt. No secret there, of course, it all comes down to money. Castillo, earning $170,000 a year at Dallas, can earn a hell of a lot more in Turkey. And MLS and Dallas get to share the reported $4 million transfer fee. So win-win smiles all round.
But from the MLS angle, these are smiles that cover up a serious fault-line in the league’s structure. It is noticeable that Commissioner Don Garber has been much quieter lately about one of his favorite visions for a glowing MLS future: that it will, by the end of this decade, be one of the global sport’s top leagues.
The Castillo deal exposes that -- much more clearly than any previous move -- as not likely. How is MLS going to compete at the international level if it cannot hold on to its best young players?
How does MLS benefit from losing a dynamic star like Castillo? It doesn’t. The monetary details that are reported show that MLS is not in the big league. The $170,000 salary that Castillo was getting from Dallas is almost insultingly low for a player of his potential. Of course he was going to move to Europe where he will earn at least twice that much. As for the $4 million fee, that too sounds like a steal, great news for Trabzonspor, a poor deal for MLS.
How long does MLS expect to keep its other promising youngsters? Players like Cyle Larin, Jack Harrison, Jordan Morris? It simply cannot expect to retain them if they feel the lure -- which they will -- of much more money in Europe.
At the moment, MLS is trying to give the impression that its Designated Player scheme will enable it to match European salary scales. But the limited number of players to whom it applies gives the lie to that notion. There is also the fact that the DPs tend to be veterans in the final years of their careers.
Some of those veterans have done very well, though few have been -- like the Galaxy’s Robbie Keane -- outstanding. The transactions that brought Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley back from Europe were greeted ecstatically at the time -- but that was three seasons back, and so far neither Seattle nor Toronto has anything to show for their big-spending.
Maybe the opposite -- the upheavals at Seattle, the departure of coach Sigi Schmid, suggest that bringing in a superstar who may be earning as much as all the others team players combined does nothing for locker-room harmony.
The DP system has its good points -- or at least, it did have them. But it is at best a stop-gap measure, something that allows MLS to give the impression that it belongs with the big-spending European clubs.
Well it doesn’t, not by a long way, and it never will as long as it adheres to the single-entity structure. That structure, so vital to the birth and post-partum health of the league, now stands as an obstacle to any expansive MLS growth. It will have to be ditched, or at least smoothly modified out of existence. Right now, it is a deception, though it seems likely that those most deceived are the MLS owners themselves.
A league that imports, and overpays, fading veterans, while underpaying and losing its young stars, is never going to be one of the world’s great leagues.
The loss of Fabian Castillo, so suddenly in midseason, may be justified by defining it as part of the realpolitik of the global game, but there’s no escaping that it is a sad loss for MLS and for Dallas fans in particular. As Castillo adjusts to life in Trabzon, I shall try to dispel my sadness by re-reading the zany adventures of the travelers in “The Towers of Trebizond.”