An MLS dilemma: Here today, gone tomorrow

MLS got its wish. It's now a selling league.

Nine MLS players moved to clubs around world during the January transfer window, which closed on Thursday night.

MLS January transfers abroad (seasons in league):
Tyler Adams
, 2+ seasons (NY Red Bulls to RB Leipzig)
Miguel Almiron, 2 seasons (Atlanta United to Newcastle United)
Alphonso Davies, 2+ seasons (Vancouver to Bayern Munich)
Sebastian Giovinco, 4 seasons (Toronto FC to Al-Hilal)
Chris Richards, 3 months (FC Dallas to Bayern Munich)
Alejandro Silva, 1 season (Montreal to Olimpia)
*Zack Steffen, 2+ seasons (Columbus to Manchester City)
Victor Vazquez, 2 seasons (Toronto FC to Al-Arabi)
Yoshimar Yotun, 1+ season (Orlando City to Cruz Azul)
*Will stay in Columbus until July.

The current value of the transfer fees the MLS clubs received is about $80 million, which would only rank somewhere between 15th and 20th in the world in terms of payments received by a league over the cross of a year but would be more than double what they have ever brought in.

More important, they will reduce what has become a huge trade deficit for MLS over the last two years as clubs ramp up spending on transfer fees with the use of Designated Player and new TAM mechanisms.

The players range in age from Sebastian Giovinco at age 32 to Alphonso Davies at age 18, but what stands out about them is how little time they spent in MLS before moving on.

Giovinco, who exited Toronto FC on Wednesday night after four seasons with the Reds, is the only player who was with his MLS team for three or more years.

That players are leaving quickly will be taken as a sign of success.

Implicit in the pact that Atlanta United made with Miguel Almiron was that if he left Lanus and came to MLS it could make him a better player and help fulfill his dream of playing in the EPL. The New York Red Bulls showed Tyler Adams that by staying with them and playing two years with the first team and a third year in the USL he'd be better prepared for a move to RB Leipzig.

Their achievements mean that other players will follow. Other South Americans will pick MLS over, say, Portugal or the Netherlands as a launching pad to a major European league because of Almiron's record move to Newcastle United. That's already happened with Atlanta United, which has signed Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez, the 2018 El Rey de America, for the 2019 season. Other young players in the New York metropolitan area will stay with the Red Bulls instead heading straight to Europe because they've seen it work for Adams.

MLS is better off because it's had Almiron for two years and Adams for two-plus years rather than not at all, but it still seems like they were here today, gone tomorrow.

MLS is in  the business of making heroes, but that's a tough business if it must make new heroes every two or three years. For all we know, Pity Martinez will become a bigger star than Almiron was, and the Red Bulls will produce another Tyler Adams out of their youth system. But the successors to Almiron and Adams will soon be gone, too.

In the short term, the lure of Europe and the big lights and the big money it offers is something MLS can't counter. But when you compare how the American pro leagues have their heroes to themselves for the entirety of their careers, 10 years, 15 years, sometimes 20 years, MLS faces a huge challenge if turns over its best and brightest every couple of years.

7 comments about "An MLS dilemma: Here today, gone tomorrow".
  1. Nico Caraballo, February 1, 2019 at 6:57 a.m.

    I like the overall point you are making. MLS has made huge strides, and is gaining more respect as it produces more talent. The problem is that we can't compare MLS to MLB, the NFL, or other domestic leagues. MLB and the NFL in the US are what the EPL, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1, and Serie A are in Europe... Destinations where everyone globally wants to end up for that sport.

    MLS will not be that league until soccer becomes that type of sport in the US, and can generate the type of salaries that the NFL and MLB can. And we are far from that! The logical next step is to become that destination that can launch someone directly to a top flight European league, while working on making soccer more popular domestically. 

    Look at South America, where soccer is everything, yet their leagues can't compete with European leagues (all because they can't generate the revenue to pay top tier salaries)... If we could get soccer in the US to have even half of the popularity it has in South America, soccer would generate the revenue needed to pay baseball like salaries, and MLS would become a destination league...

    But even then, there would be major movement, because of all the existing destination leagues, unlike MLB or the NFL, where no matter where in the world you play professionally, there is only one league you want to play in...

  2. beautiful game replied, February 1, 2019 at 11:23 a.m.

    Nico, your opinion doesn't address the core substance of league stature in that the recent big transfer fees mostly involve foreign players in MLS. If professional soccer in America wants to become a top tier sport it has to develop home grown talent that is marketable to foreign clubs. Until the first building blocks of a developmental system is structured between USSF and MLS, etc., nothing will change on the American soccer landscape and its valuation.

  3. Jon Rakestraw replied, February 1, 2019 at 2:07 p.m.

    For MLS to be a big go-to destination league, it’s “top four” teams will have to be tied into a UEFA-style Champions League on a global scale. 

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, February 1, 2019 at 6:11 p.m.

    The US is an attractive destination for players from the Americas for reasons other than salary. It gives MLS a non-monetary advantage over European clubs.

  5. Walter Avent, February 1, 2019 at 10:01 a.m.

    Well said Nico. It will be hard to unseat leagues like the EPL to become a destination league. We shouldn't feel that MLS is a failure because it isn't a destination league. We should get to see some first class football as players come and go.  As an Atlanta United Fan, losing Miguel was a blow, but as long as the team can withstand the coming and going I am fine. I just became a Newcastle United fan in addition!!!!

  6. R2 Dad, February 1, 2019 at 11:31 a.m.

    Player turnover is not a huge problem. Teams can play their kids--we have plenty of raw talent in this country. The real challenges are structural: Do we have enough quality coaches the kids can learn from? Is the quality of the squad high enough that young players will be driven to improve their touch, passing, vision, finishing? Will the officials protect these kids just coming up, or will they just get injured over and over because "professional" referees refuse to whistle the LOTG they don't like (Persistent Infringement, Delaying a Restart on free kicks, Excessive Force). The Bundesliga has managed all of these, with a league structure (50+1) that is more restrictive than what MLS faces. So it is possible, but everyone from Corediero to Garber to the fans and parents have to be on the same page--that's the real problem.

  7. John Soares, February 1, 2019 at 2:52 p.m.

    bg, right...but baby steps.

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