Major League Soccer’s avowed desire is to be the “best league in the world.” It’s nowhere near that right now, but some of the transactions this offseason show that it might be moving toward an intermediate step — becoming a league where players can show off for European teams, a key move away from its “retirement league” reputation.
The best example is 18-year-old Argentinian attacking midfielder Ezequiel Barco, who moved from Argentine giant Independiente to Atlanta United for a $15 million transfer fee. That $15 million smashed the previous American record set by standout Michael Bradley’s move from Roma to Toronto for $10 million.
Bradley’s move was the old way MLS did things — pay big bucks to bring a marketable American star back home. Barco, who’s played just two seasons so far, represents the new way. Atlanta, which also paid $8.5 million last year to Lanus (also from Argentina) for 24-year-old Paraguayan standout Miguel Almirón, is betting that it can win by developing young talent under coach Tata Martino — and then make a profit by selling rising stars to the best clubs in Europe.
If this theory is successful, it could lead to a win-win-win kind of scenario. Selling players to European teams could bring more money into MLS, which still pitches nickels around like manhole covers. It could also lead to better, more exciting soccer on the field, and get other young players interested in showcasing their skills in MLS — which is starting to shed its worldwide reputation as a skill-free, overly physical league.
Not every team will be able to make the same pitch as Martino, whose previous two jobs were coaching Barcelona and the Argentina national team. Martino can sell players on his expertise, but that doesn’t mean young stars from Latin America will be beating down doors to play for every team in the league.
It doesn’t mean that clubs won’t hold out for inflated prices, either.
Minnesota United seems to be finding this out the hard way, as it’s been unable to convince Colombian club Deportivo Cali to sell 20-year-old Colombian midfielder Nicolás Benedetti.
Besides Atlanta, though, there are several MLS clubs set up to make a push. English giant Manchester City owns NYC FC, giving the MLS club a natural pipeline to Europe. Teams like expansion Los Angeles FC and league champion Toronto have shown a willingness to spend big money for players — something they could extend to younger players. A team like FC Dallas, with its well-regarded youth academy, could move on to developing older players who’ve had a few years in the big leagues already.
What seems certain is that Barco and Almirón are just the start, and that we’ll see more future European stars making a stop in MLS. The league doesn’t want to be just a way station, in the long term.
As an intermediate step, though, it’s a positive.
• The Orlando Pride might have assembled the most high-powered offense in NWSL history. In addition to all-world Brazilian attacker Marta and star American forward Alex Morgan, the Pride added U.S. women’s national team striker Sydney Leroux, trading a first-round draft pick to Utah to get her. The move also reunites Leroux with husband Dom Dwyer, who was traded from Kansas City to Orlando midway through last year’s MLS season.
• The U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election is Saturday, with most expecting Soccer United Marketing President Kathy Carter to take over the fractious job of trying to keep every American soccer constituency happy.
• MLS has long taken heat for its “closed” system, with no promotion and relegation — but could Mexico follow in its footsteps? A Liga MX committee is considering a proposal to suspend relegation for at least four years, purportedly to give second-division teams time to bring their clubs up to first-division standard. More cynical observers think that this is just a play by bigger teams to cement their first-division status, in case they have a down year or two.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Arsenal at Tottenham, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Struggling Arsenal completely revamped its attack in January. Tottenham hasn’t lost a game since before Christmas. The North London derby is at crosstown Wembley Stadium this time around, but the atmosphere will probably be just as electric.
Bundesliga: Hamburg at Borussia Dortmund, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. This could well be the year that Hamburg — a Bundesliga member since the league’s founding in 1963 and the only team never relegated — finally drops. Dortmund is stuck in a mass of teams fighting for a Champions League spot.
Premier League: Leicester City at Manchester City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Manchester City has been all but unbeatable, but competing for four separate trophies has the Citizens looking a little exhausted. A draw last week against Burnley was only the fourth league game in 26 that City has failed to win.
Liga MX: Club America at Tigres, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. Two of Mexico’s biggest clubs meet in what could be a defining match for either side. America’s hot start has it tied for first place, right where the club’s fans believe it should be — and right in the place that Tigres has occupied for the past few years.