“We need to be a selling league,” said Don Garber on the eve of last season’s MLS Cup final between Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers. Garber emphasized the need to understand where the league stands within the larger world soccer ecosystem, saying “we all need to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold. We’ve been buying for so long...it’s hard to justify that investment.” It was an appropriate setting to make such a claim, with Atlanta a month away from selling Miguel Almiron to Newcastle for a league and club-record $27 million.
While Garber mentioned Alphonso Davies’ development through the Vancouver Whitecaps’ academy by name, Almiron is an example of a team purchasing a young talent for the express purpose of developing and selling on for a larger fee. Garber doubled down on refocusing clubs to adopt this sustainable model familiar with how we perceive the smartest teams around the world operate, but was never the main story of MLS. In describing what he termed a “seismic shift” in how the league must operate in the future, it came down to flipping the math equation of a previous era where clubs spent $100 million on buying players but only bringing in $65 million through sales. In softening his language, he emphasized that buying and selling players is an aspect of “becoming a player in the global market.”
Almiron’s case of heading to the Premier League was unique considering the link between MLS clubs and Bundesliga sides the established bridge for movement across continents. Those ambitions evolved even further this offseason with FC Dallas striking a developmental partnership with Bayern Munich to share player and coaching resources at the academy level. In describing the “unprecedented” relationship between the two clubs, Dallas CEO Clark Hunt added that it’s another step in his goal of having an academy that can compete “at the highest levels on a global scale.” For Bayern, it’s an opportunity to integrate themselves within the American soccer market.
The partnership already had an immediate impact with Bayern’s signing of center back Chris Richards from Dallas’ academy for $1.5 million over the winter. Though Dallas may already be the top MLS club in terms of development, a new league-wide focus on selling, along with innovative partnerships between league clubs and German counterparts, gives room for a new narrative to build within American youth soccer. Consider Richards’ story from choosing between playing basketball and soccer while growing up in Hoover, Alabama, to leaving Alabama and moving to Houston in search of better training and competition, to eventually moving to Germany. It is a story unique to the sport in America.
Though Richards’ mom observed that “it kind of stinks” that her son’s journey from a small town in Alabama to the most decorated team in Germany has received little local attention. “He was just an average kid from Hoover, Alabama, who left home at 5-foot-9,” she said, adding that “maybe if other kids see that Chris has this chance, it could make a difference and give some kids the idea to say ‘Why not me?’” Richards’ youth coach in Houston went further, saying how places like Mississippi and Louisiana have a lot of “hidden talent” who don’t have access to an academy setting. With focus in place, the next step is building a far-reaching infrastructure able to uncover unpolished gems.
“We will sell players when it makes sense,” said Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson before this season. “If you have a player that’s proven and a player that’s integrated into the club and the system, it removes all risk. You start to build your roster around those key players,” he added. In eschewing the selling mindset, the Timbers reportedly turned down a multi-million dollar offer for midfielder Sebastian Blanco for the sake of team unity. While selling players may be the end goal, there is still an MLS Cup to win.
The narratives before each MLS season have been defined as much by off-field movement as on-field play. If last season was about clubs signing young South American talent, then this season presents the other side of that equation. Yet there is a tension between player development and building a cohesive, competitive side. And though supporters are caught in the middle, that shift is also attracts a higher level of talent to each side. 2018 South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez, signed to replace Almiron, says “I hope to do things well and then make the jump to a European league, as Almiron is doing now.”
Almiron’s impact at Newcastle was immediate, with the club winning three out of four matches since his arrival. With the Spanish-speaking attacking trident of Salomon Rondon, Ayoze Perez, and Almiron turning the club into entertainers, Rafa Benitez hailed his movement in between the lines in opening up a new dimension in their attack. For many, Almiron’s seamless transition proves the quality of MLS, though not every player from South America comes to the league with eyes on a European move. League MVP and record-goalscorer Josef Martinez turned down transfers elsewhere to stay in Atlanta. Martinez recognized how his decision would be perceived in terms of ambition, but for him, Atlanta United represents his own version of playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid. “Affection can’t be bought,” said Martinez after signing a five-year contract extension, before adding “That’s what’s important to me.”
Proudly displaying MLS as a selling league is unique in the American sports market where all major leagues are at the top of their respective sports, with players moving across the world for a goal of eventually playing in the states. Even within leagues, it would be unthinkable for say, the Milwaukee Bucks to operate with the express focus of developing talent for the Los Angeles Lakers. Being part of the global market certainly changes the relationship between supporter, player, and club, where players leaving is a sign of success. Yet in watching Ajax defeat Real Madrid in the Champions League, knowing that their club will get raided of their young talent this summer, not only failed to dampen the meaning of the result but became a source of pride. One can never erase a player’s time from a club’s history, no matter how long or short their stay. And with an emphasis on development in place, there will always be another player and another team somewhere down the line.