Analysis

Buying and selling: Why it's time for MLS to recalibrate its approach

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

If MLS is going to progress, it needs to start selling more players to earn respect in the global market.

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The bubble in which MLS has long operated is beginning to deflate.

For so long, MLS players who never leave the league remain inside of the bubble. Salaries for players remain lower than the global norm, making MLS’ salary cap – or budget, whatever you want to call it – workable. As long as you can sign starters for $150,000, a cap around $4 million works.

Once exposed to the world market, however, those numbers are difficult to maintain. People often ask why Brek Shea can make $500,000, or why Juninho’s salary is higher now for the Chicago Fire than it was for the LA Galaxy. Well, simply put, their value was set on the global scale. They are making what they are supposed to be making. It just seems inflated within MLS.

The strategic decision to keep salaries low has benefitted MLS on most levels. But as the league’s aspirations grow, that same MLS bubble is going to begin to drag the league down.

The next frontier for MLS is to become a selling league. Of course, not every team will be able to follow this format. The market for FC Dallas, which has a plush homegrown territory, is different than for, say, Portland. But with MLS owners investing so much in their academy, it only makes sense for two things to start happening more in MLS: teams playing their homegrown players more often, and teams looking to sell those players for a profit.

FC Dallas has been the example of the future of MLS in so many ways. Not just because the club signs homegrowns, but because it is willing to play them – and sell them. The Hoops bought Fabian Castillo at 17 years old and sold him for millions after he became a star in MLS. They sold Brek Shea to Stoke City and Richard Sanchez to Tigres and Alejandro Zendejas to Chivas.

“This should be a selling league and I think it is in many ways our goal,” FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo said. “But then again, those goals at the same time are to win a championship. You don’t want to dismantle a team as soon as you feel comfortable, so we need to get a first line and then a second line of players to be able to do that.”

This is where that bubble comes back into play.

Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

'How much are we talking?' (Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports)

MLS wants to become a bigger player on the world stage, but the quickest way to get credibility is to develop players, move them on and see them succeed in the bigger leagues. It’s why Carlos Saucedo can be sold by Real Salt Lake to Chivas at one price point and then see him sold to Fiorentina at a totally different level. Liga MX has that credibility; MLS hasn’t established it yet.

It’s why Erik Palmer-Brown didn’t garner a big enough offer for Sporting Kansas City to sell. And I don’t blame head coach Peter Vermes one bit. If Palmer-Brown was Belgian or Mexican or even Costa Rican, the offer would have been significantly higher. Why shouldn’t teams have to pay true value?

And therein lies the problem. MLS might have to be willing to sell a bit below market value, just as they sometimes have to buy a bit above market value, in order to see the dividends in the long term. The more Andy Najar and DeAndre Yedlin types succeeding in Europe, the more credibility MLS earns.

“It comes down to what drives the club and what the budget implications are,” said Portland Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson. “Certainly that becomes an opportunity now. The fact that we have to ask that question shows how far the game has come here and how far the academies have come. We weren’t asking about developing with an aim to sell before. … It’s the climate we are in and where we’re progressing.”

It’s also why MLS clubs want to see training compensation come into play. MLS may get some credit for Weston McKennie if he develops at Schalke, but it didn’t get compensated. MLS has asked its owners to commit millions to youth development, but they been too slow to see the benefits of that investment – in minutes played for the first team, value on the global market and even in a trade market within MLS.

(There has been debate about whether homegrown rights are tradable. Why shouldn’t they be? The teams have committed the money to develop players, they should be able to trade those rights as assets, otherwise what’s the point of the investment? And it shouldn’t just be ‘the right of first refusal’ after failing to sign a player. Any team should be able to trade homegrown rights to any player in its academy. And if age is the big concern, then make it college-age homegrown players only.)

MLS doesn’t need to be wholly a selling league – it should continue to compete for players like Ignacio Piatti, Nicolás Lodeiro and Miguel Almirón – but the more it can cash in on the younger players it showcases, the faster the league’s reputation will grow worldwide.

It’s the next step in the league’s progression, and now is the time to aggressively push that process forward.

The Final Third

What to make of U.S. U-20s

The frustration grows out of something so simple. When the rosters are announced, it usually takes almost no time to identify a major weakness with U.S. youth national teams. In this case, it’s the lack of a true playmaker in the midfield.

Will Parchman, an expert on the youth national team program, was quick to point out that weakness. There seems to be a reluctance in this cycle to play a young, creative midfielder in that role. The U.S. may still qualify for the World Cup, and probably will, but at some point we need to give young, technical Americans a chance to shine. When top players in those positions are kept out of the team because of club and other considerations – like Josh Perez and Christian Pulisic – there are others that deserve that chance still.

Close to real soccer

Guys, we’re getting close to real games. After weeks of watching slow preseason games that have been more focused on gaining fitness than playing great soccer, we’re just a couple days away from the start of the CONCACAF Champions League.

The New York Red Bulls will face the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday, while FC Dallas will take on Arabe Unido. FC Dallas, I think, has a fantastic chance to make a run in this tournament. They are loaded with talent, and with Latin American players who won’t be intimidated going into the toughest CONCACAF assignments. The preseason preparation in Argentina shows how dedicated the club is to making the Club World Cup.

While FC Dallas is my pick for the MLS team that will advance furthest in the tournament, the game I’m most intrigued to see is the Red Bulls. How will they look without Dax McCarty? How will Sean Davis fare in a featured role? How will it impact Sacha Kljestan?

Mostly, I’m just pumped to see real MLS soccer again.

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