With the January Transfer window set to close in a matter of hours, a trio of big money moves has put Major League Soccer in the spotlight and in the process validated Commissioner Don Garber’s December proclamation that MLS must “become more of a selling league.”
Now with Sebastian Giovinco, Miguel Almiron, and Luciano Acosta (possibly) on the way out from Toronto, Atlanta, and Washington DC, respectively, it would appear that Garber’s words have been heeded by the league’s owners.
Garber’s remarks at his State of the League speech prior to the 2018 MLS Cup in December were a 180 degree transition from his previously oft-stated belief that MLS needed to hang on to its marquee players in order to give fans something to latch onto as the league attempted to carve out a niche for itself in the hyper-competitive U.S. sports marketplace.
Garber said then that, “as a person who has been selling this league for nearly 20 years, I’ve always believed that you needed to have the players that resonated in your market to be those that could be aspirations for young kids who are peeking through the fence when they see them train.”
Garber, who arrived in MLS after a successful career in the NFL explained, “We all needed to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold. We (MLS) have been buying for so long, and as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development. We’ve got to have something that turns this model around or else it’s going to be unsustainable. When I see Alphonso Davies get sold for what could be $22 million, that’s a positive thing for the league.”
The sale of 18-year-old Canadian midfielder Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps to German superclub Bayern (for a then MLS record fee) accelerated the league’s new philosophy and was soon followed by smaller financial deals as Tyler Adams jumped to RB Leipzig from sister club New York Red Bulls and 18-year-old center back Chris Richards joined Davies in Munich when his loan was made a transfer from FC Dallas.
These latest moves differ from the earlier deals in that Giovinco, Almiron, and Acosta were all purchased by MLS teams while Davies, Adams, and Richards, were all developed (in varying degrees) by the selling teams.
And though the transactions have made MLS players in the world market at a previously unseen level, each of the transfers is unique.
Almiron’s move to Newcastle from Atlanta not only surpassed the Davies deal as the largest transfer fee received by an MLS team (and the league, which also gets a cut), it is also the most money ever paid out by Newcastle United to purchase a player, and is, therefore, big news in England, where the Toons are fighting a relegation battle.
While Almiron’s move to England’s Premier League is widely perceived as a positive for MLS, the departure of former MVP Giovinco’s to Saudi club Al-Hilal for an estimated $2 to $3 million may be judged in a less flattering light if Giovinco’s parting words are to be believed.
“As I have always maintained, I was hoping to renew my contract and finish my playing career in a city that feels like home. … A place my family loves to live and wanted to call home for good,” Giovinco began.
“Unfortunately, this desire of ours has clashed with a change in direction with current TFC management. For the 2 years, I have been seeking to extend my contract however management was reluctant. Recently, after refusing to exercise the club option for 2020, I was offered terms that I deemed unacceptable. They may say I left for a more lucrative deal, but this is not the case. Their offer and lack of transparency is a clear message. It seems management prefers to focus on things other than the pure desire to win.”
If TFC is, indeed scaling back its ambitions- will Michel Bradley and Jozy Altidore follow Seba out the door?- the league could suffer.
And then there is Acosta. The deal to send the DC United attacker to PSG had not been finalized at the time of this writing and rumor has it that Acosta may head to Paris on a six-month loan, rather than a transfer, but the idea that one of the world’s richest clubs is attempting to bring in a DC United player to fill in for the injured Neymar (!) – did I neglect to mention that?- is certainly a feather in the league’s cap and will do the league’s reputation no harm.
Of course, the flip side to selling is replacing departed talent. DC has been linked to Boca Juniors fullback Leonardo Jara, obviously not a direct replacement for Acosta. The new “selling league” mandate will turn up the heat on MLS sides to find replacements, via development, scouting, and spending.
Although winter is in full flush, spring beckons, and as we approach the new season, year 24 for Major League Soccer, the stakes seem higher than in the past, as they should. 2019 feels like a brave new world for MLS, and I for one, can’t wait for March.