By the end of the January transfer window, Major League Soccer had sold $45 Million worth of players to foreign leagues. While that same amount in Europe may only be good for a Bundesliga striker, the $45 million profit is a seismic shift for a league that has been in existence for barely 25 years. At last, Major League Soccer seems to be embracing the model of a “selling league.” Becoming a “selling league” represents a significant step forward for a league that has too frequently been concerned with recruiting cover athletes from FIFA 10 and placing them in LA Galaxy jerseys.
The reason for MLS’s sudden increase in revenue comes as a result of their top prospects finally attracting offers from the world’s biggest leagues. In January, the Columbus Crew Goalkeeper and the United States international Zack Steffen signed a pre-contract agreement with Manchester City. The Canadian prospect and Vancouver Whitecaps star Alphonso Davies moved to Germany to play for Bayern Munich alongside FC Dallas defender Chris Richards. As mentioned in the previous MLS article, Tyler Adams, one of the brightest American prospects, was snapped from Red Bull New York by Red Bull Leipzig. Undoubtedly the largest deal of the window, however, came in the form of a record-shattering $26 Million fee from Newcastle United for Atlanta United player Miguel Almiron. Almiron has since started multiple games for the premier league side and, in his first two performances, received a standing ovation from the St. James’ Park fans.
The immediate reaction to the league’s mass exodus of talent has been met with shock and frustration by many fans within the country. How could the league benefit from the departure of its best players? This is a fair question; however, it fails to recognize that, with increased involvement in the transfer market, the league increases its profile. Now that players are effectively using American soccer as a route to the upper echelon of European leagues, other talented players from lower leagues around the world will consider moving stateside in the hopes that their performances breed similar results.
The fervor of the transfer market ensures the league’s growth, even at the immediate expense of the most talented players. For Major League Soccer, being involved in the transfer market represents even more than just its evolution as a platform for lower league soccer. Major League Soccer has been on the fringe of the sport since its creation in 1994, having to watch the absurdity of the transfer market from afar. European leagues and even the leagues of Central and South America have continually refused to grant the ignorant Americans an audience. At last, however, these leagues are changing the channel and fixing their tune on America’s spin on the beautiful game. Not only does MLS represent a market of fresh, undiscovered talent, but it gives access to an audience of 330 million potential fans.
The characters around MLS are quickly realizing the league’s new European audience. Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Tim Melia described the shift as a change in perspective: "I think it was in the early stages it was more about just developing the teams, getting the infrastructure correct with each team. Now they're looking to find players when they're a little bit younger, buy them a little cheaper and then sell them for more money and profit off it."
As the players recognize the emergence of this model, so do the agents. Richard Motzkin, the representative for MLS emigrants Chris Richards and Zack Steffen, said of the league’s new mindset, "MLS is developing talent and also embracing the notion that they can move players overseas. That makes it more attractive to players to commit to the league. They can either develop and move on, or make a career here.”
Motzkin realizes that, at last, MLS is embracing the model of the European leagues that it aspires to be aligned with in the future. This model allows players to dig a path of success for others to follow. Miguel Almiron proved the effectiveness of the model after his successful spell at Atlanta earned him a move to the Premier League. Even more significant in Almiron’s path to Europe was the draw his move to MLS had on other South American talents. After all, had Almiron not had such success in the US, players like Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez not have followed in his footsteps. Martinez, who signed with Atlanta in January from River Plate, spoke to an Argentine Radio show following the move, stating that he would use MLS as a trampoline to Europe.
The arrival of such South American talents will also increase the level of football in MLS exponentially. Ingesting the league with pace, flair, and skill, these footballers have been embraced by their parent clubs who are willing to let them run free and flaunt their talent to the home supporters. Allowing creativity to flourish, the league will distance itself from the languid style of buildup play that has been present in the league since its creation.
Though MLS has made great strides towards becoming a “selling league,” there remain specific steps that the league must take to advance to the next level. One such action is the full transparency of transactions. Similar to the European model, this would allow the media, the supporters, and the players to understand the value of an individual. The players and their agents could use other deals as evidence for their demands, the supporters would have access to the information about their clubs revenue from individual sales, and the resulting media attention would drive the league’s profile.
Ultimately, the success of MLS depends massively on the success of their outgoing players. If Miguel Almiron becomes a regular talent for Newcastle and Tyler Adams breaks through to become one of the Bundesliga’s true superstars, their successes will have a massive impact on the league that bred them – Major League Soccer.