Money to burn: Is trading a player for allocation money really worth it?
Now that Major League Soccer’s summer transfer window is open, the New York Red Bulls have a few weeks left to answer the question hanging over their season: How will they spend their Dax McCarty money?
MLS has only been officially revealing figures in allocation deals for a few months, but it’s widely accepted that the McCarty deal, which sent the deep-lying playmaker to the Chicago Fire in January for $400,000 in General Allocation Money, is among the largest money-for-player deals in MLS history.
As of now, the Fire clearly got the better of this deal. Chicago – with McCarty perfectly complementing Bastian Schweinsteiger – sits atop the Eastern Conference. It might be time to call this trade a bust for the Red Bulls, though that depends on what they do with the cash.
And while Red Bulls fans may be optimistic that their team has $400,000 to play with this summer, the track record for MLS teams trying to replace veteran MLS productivity with resources gained from trading a star is a spotty one, regardless of how the player performs at his new team.
2013: Seattle uses Eddie Johnson money for role players
After the 2013 season, the Seattle Sounders set the blueprint for a blockbuster allocation trade by sending striker Eddie Johnson to D.C. United for a reported $650,000 in General Allocation Money.
On paper, the trade worked perfectly for Seattle.
The Sounders followed their mediocre 2013 with a 2014 season that included a U.S. Open Cup title, a Supporters Shield and a trip to the Western Conference Finals. Meanwhile, Johnson scored just seven goals in 26 appearances with DC.
But New York fans can’t look to Seattle as an example of a team who blew huge allocation money on game-changing players with their money for Johnson. Before the club dealt the striker, they had already acquired one of MLS’ greatest attacking pairs in Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins, meaning they spent the 2013 offseason adding depth and role players.
The closest thing to an allocation splurge Seattle made in the months following Johnson’s departure was the addition of Chad Marshall from Columbus, whose cost has never been divulged. Marshall has been important for Seattle in his years in the Pacific Northwest, but Red Bull fans will need more to feel like McCarty’s loss was justified.
2016: Dealing Kamara after the dust-up
Gregg Berhalter, who sent Marshall to Seattle as one of his first moves at the helm of Columbus Crew SC, has been on both sides of the allocation-for-star-players discussion, and has been one of MLS’ most willing participants in big-money deals since his 2013 arrival.
His highest-profile move to date was one of the biggest trades in MLS history, when Berhalter sent star striker Kei Kamara to the New England Revolution for a reported $500,000 in General and Targeted Allocation Money in the spring of 2016 after the striker’s high-profile blow-up with Berhalter and teammate Federico Higuain.
Kamara has certainly not justified his price while in New England, but back in Columbus, few of Berhalter’s expensive moves since the trade have panned out, and the club has followed up a bottom-dwelling 2016 season with a mediocre start to 2017.
Ola Kamara has scored plenty of goals, but was on the team well before Kei Kamara was traded. So instead of a striker, Berhalter spent money on his defense, which has not improved at all.
Along with giving raises to stalwarts Wil Trapp and Justin Meram, Columbus used a Designated Player spot on defender Jonathan Mensah, who has been disappointing at best, and paid a transfer fee for midfielder Mohammed Abu, who has not looked like an MLS-quality player.
Likely with some of the remaining funds, Berhalter made his own allocation-money gambit. He paid $225,000 in Targeted Allocation Money and $75,000 in General Allocation Money (along with unsettled midfielder Tony Tchani) for the promising but mercurial Kekuta Manneh, who had just months left on his MLS contract.
Like his other allocation-related maneuvers, the purchase has not fared well for Berhalter thus far, but the Crew SC boss will hope that Manneh has turned a corner. The winger started his Columbus career openly frustrated with a lack of playing time, and had to wait nearly three months for his first goal and assist.
2016 and 2017: Vieira flips the script on valuation
While the majority of the league’s large allocation deals have been for established names, New York City FC’s Patrick Vieira has taken a different approach, targeting exciting youth talent available in the draft.
In his first MLS SuperDraft, Vieira had his eye on Jack Harrison, and reportedly paid an unprecedented $250,000 to the Chicago Fire for the English rookie, who was clearly the most talented player in the draft. That move flew in the face of the idea that there isn’t talent in the SuperDraft; Harrison has grown into one of the most exciting and productive wingers in the league.
This year, Vieira did the exact same thing. He paid another $250,000 to Chicago, this time for the third overall pick and the right to select Jonathan Lewis. The Akron product and 2017 MLS Combine MVP may not have Harrison-level expectations, but he’s another talented winger who caught Vieira’s eye and has big upside.
Part of that money, of course, was applied toward acquiring McCarty, which is a win for Chicago.
If the New York Red Bulls expect to capitalize on their newfound funds in a way that others haven’t in Major League Soccer’s short history of big-money trades, they may need to get creative. And with their season hanging in the balance, Denis Hamlett and Jesse Marsch may not have the luxury of waiting for next spring to cherry-pick a talented youngster with their piles of cash.