Internal solutions: How MLS teams add players from partner clubs

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Seven MLS clubs have partnerships or common owners with overseas clubs. Christian Araos looks at how that makes for some tricky player deals.

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Omer Damari’s shoulders drooped as he sat far from the table during his introduction at Red Bull Arena. Damari’s eyes looked left and right while he politely gave platitudes about being “happy to part of a big club.” His shoulders shrugged as he admitted to knowing little about his new league. He won’t have time to learn much; his loan expires in four months.

Damari will return to an uncertain future at RB Leipzig, which wants to move on from its €7 million investment. At the moment, Damari is help at forward for New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch. There’s a similar scenario in Montreal as MLS clubs become destinations for players on foreign teams their operators also own. The newly paved path could help lead to either team’s first MLS Cup.

Chivas USA’s exit from MLS wasn’t the end of these sort of relationships. To go with the Red Bulls’ move, the Montreal Impact added Matteo Mancosu on loan from Bologna -- also owned by Impact owner Joey Saputo -- to give themselves forward depth entering the final stretch. Mancosu has as many goals in Montreal as he did all last season in Serie A. The loan will run to next July when his contract expires.

At the moment, seven MLS clubs share owners with overseas clubs. They have always been allowed to make transactions between themselves, but loaning senior players is a new element. With the designated player threshold above $450,000 and General Allocation Money allowing clubs to expand their salary cap space, senior players (and their contracts) are now more affordable. Thus, Mancosu joins the Impact without counting as a DP.

Damari, however, was deemed by the league office to be a designated player due to his contract with Leipzig. MLS applied extra scrutiny in determining the budget charge and player status for both players since the transfer involved ‘related parties’ like teams that share common owners. Red Bull sporting director Ali Curtis said he had to make several in-person meetings with the league office to verify Damari’s contract information before completing the deal. Having set a precedent, Curtis hinted that this may become a habit.

“Omer is not the only player that we’ve ever inquired about with Leipzig,” Curtis said. “They have a number of talented players both in Salzburg and Leipzig that we feel could help us. We’ll see how things go moving forward. But certainly if there’s a player that we think could add to the group and it also makes sense for that other team, we hope that there could be some of these situations moving forward.”

Curtis said he first saw Damari in Qatar at a joint-training camp for Leipzig and Salzburg in January 2015. Since then, Curtis said he’s made “40-to-50” phone calls to talk about Damari and other players overseas. He added that being plugged into coaches, directors and scouts in Austria helped in securing Daniel Royer as well. The convenient communication allowed the Red Bulls to beat the deadline on both deals.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Though the Red Bulls had a logistical advantage, they do not get any help with the salary cap. Having examined his contract with Leipzig, MLS determined Damari to be a DP, forcing the Red Bulls to pay $150,000 to purchase the third slot. When determining Mancosu’s compensation and status, the league considered the terms of his previous loan with Carpi as well as other offers. A league spokesperson explained that the league does not want to be paying for a player who is also being paid by their club’s owner. MLS, by making the decision itself, is able to prevent a club from gaming the rules by only being charged a fraction of the player’s salary. This is why the City Football Group group can’t just loan anyone on Manchester City to New York City FC.

It is written into NYCFC’s expansion charter that they can acquire up to four players from Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad on loan. They made no additions for this season but their loanees from last year benefitted from their time in MLS. NYCFC benefitted as well, with Shay Facey and Angelino becoming first-team regulars.

Both Facey and Angelino made well within the limits of the salary cap. If NYCFC wants to loan a senior player from Manchester or anywhere else within the CFG, then they too will go through the same scrutiny from the league office. More than one person has said that any player on Manchester City’s senior squad would be a DP if NYCFC wanted to add them.

But the expansion agreement can be seen as MLS’ best attempt at having the cake and eating it too. It agreed to let NYCFC add youngsters intent on cracking the first team of a club in a league it wants to eventually equal in play and reputation. Angelino said his time at NYCFC helped him progress and Facey recently captained the EDS. Time will tell if they make the first team and are able to give MLS credit afterwards. New York City FC declined to comment on this story, citing a desire to keep this part of their dealings private.

The dynamic is different with the Red Bulls. Since Salzburg and Leipzig are now in their respective first divisions, they have to maintain their own local affiliations with teams in lower divisions. Curtis called it their own “minor-league teams.” The same applies with Red Bull II in USL. Damari and Royer trained and scrimmaged with the USL team while their visas were finalized.

Damari’s first touch made a good impression Saturday night at Red Bull Arena, and he scored the equalizer for New York in Tuesday’s 1-1 Champions League draw with Alianza. Red Bull Assistant coach Denis Hamlett said after Saturday’s match that the heat affected Damari’s debut, but he showed his ability in 11 minutes of action. Damari has to gain match fitness and the appearance was a first step for the Red Bulls. Damari said it helps that the Red Bull teams play similarly.

“I think when you play in Red Bull, you have to learn the system and how to play,” said Damari, who has also previously been loaned to Red Bull Salzburg. “You have to press all the time, and always press high. Like I said, when you play with Red Bull you have to know the system, and you learn every day what to do, and to show it in the game.”

Curtis said there is no mandate from above forcing them to play a certain way. He said he believes the similarities in style come from the like-minded individuals ownership hired. It’s why, he said, he hired Marsch. The three teams press aggressively and conduct their business passionately. Curtis hopes the culture painted on and built into the walls at each of the Red Bull Arenas will hopefully make Damari’s move easier.

“I do believe that the transition from moving to a different continent is not easy in anything you do,” Curtis said. “Whether it’s soccer or doing a different job in the business world. If you can make that transition into an environment that’s similar to your previous environment then there is that opportunity so that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

Damari and Mancosu come to MLS looking to prove a point to their current and potential employers. The same will apply to the next class of EDS arrivals at New York City FC. The Colorado Rapids, Vancouver Whitecaps, D.C. United and Orlando City SC have connections to potential talent ores in Europe and elsewhere. Simon Dawkins initially came to the San Jose Earthquakes through a partnership with Tottenham.

Watching other teams mine talent that could produce MLS silverware in December may get them to explore the same paths. And it will all take place inside an American league increasingly becoming a part of the globalized transfer market.

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