While a possible move to Celtic F.C. will help Agudelo's international prospects, another young American leaving won't help MLS in improving its poor TV ratings.If a recent report is to be believed, then Juan Agudelo is on his way to Scotland giant Celtic F.C., maybe as soon as this week. Apparently, Agudelo also believes the rumor by retweeting the Sky Sports news.
This is a good move for U.S. Soccer, right? Maybe, as the move will likely boost Agudelo's chances of playing for Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States national team.
However, for Major League Soccer, this continues a disturbing trend. Last year, the league was praised for not overspending on aging talent like Nicolas Anelka and Michael Ballack to focus on younger stars - especially promising American players. The only issue is, surveying the current talent base of MLS, there are very few young Americans in the pipeline who are as marketable as Agudelo.
Sure, when Brek Shea is healthy and motivated, he comes close. But after that, MLS is severely lacking on elite American prospects especially on the attacking front. In a league that is practically ignored on English-language television despite having contracts with two major networks, ESPN and NBC, the fact that a few MLS clubs don't feature American stars at all could explain some of the poor rating numbers.
While some claim that MLS falls victim to much more popular leagues in the English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, that doesn't tell the entire story. A colleague from another publication once asked why Americans can watch both NCAA and NFL football and not MLS along with European leagues. It is true that MLS lacks the history of its counterparts from the old continent but that isn't the sole reason why the league is struggling on the TV front.
Look at the league's top statistical categories from last season. Aside from Chris Pontius, there are no Americans younger than 25 among the league's top-10 scorers. There are none in the top 10 for assists. Yes, soccer isn't all about stats, but the casual fan needs a point of reference, and statistics are the common denominator across all sports. One of the major reasons that people tune into college football is to watch future NFL players. To see young elite local stars dominate before trying their hand in the pros. MLS needs to get to that stage.
It is great that league is able to recruit promising young players from all over CONCACAF and South America, but in order to create the ardent support that will prompt more TV viewing, the league needs a local edge at its forefront. In a conversation last year with Harvard business professor Stephen Greyser, a renowned sports economist, he mentioned that the paucity of American stars in MLS is a big problem for the league.
"The league has to focus on the idea of American stars. It's been problematic for the league so far," he explained to Goal.com.
The key to this argument isn't that Agudelo shouldn't try his luck in Europe.
One of the unique and special aspects of soccer is the ability to prove one's talent in other leagues and cultures. The problem is letting him go without having any marketable young Americans as an replacement. MLS should emulate its competing league south of the border. Liga MX rarely lets go of young Mexican stars before there are suitable homegrown replacements.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez's 10 million pound move to Manchester United is a perfect example. At 23 years old, Chicharito was a still young, up-and-coming talent when he was sold to the Red Devils, but to Chivas Guadalajara, he was essentially expendable.
The Goats already had Marco Fabian waiting in the wings, and when he inevitably gets sold, then Carlos Fierro and Erick Torres will likely replace him. Due to that factor, Chivas didn't see Chicharito's move as a poaching of talent but rather a complement to the team's successful youth academy. It is very likely that Chicharito would have been much more expensive if Chivas didn't have talent to replace him.
What will be even more concerning about Agudelo's move, if it goes through, is the fact that Landon Donovan could be retiring this year or next. He isn't a spring chicken anymore at 30, but he remains as the only viable marketable American star in MLS. Being talented and media savvy is what makes Donovan such an invaluable commodity to MLS. Agudelo could have helped bridge that gap even if he stayed in the league for just another two or three seasons.
The prestige and money that European teams can offer will always be enticing for young American players. Still, there are circumstances where MLS does have the advantage. The Scottish Premier League is arguably below MLS in terms of competition and according to a source, Agudelo would have been more inclined to stay if he received a Designated Player deal similar to Brek Shea. According to the same source, both the New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA were reluctant to offer a DP contract to the unproven then teenager. With a year left on his contract, Agudelo has a strong negiotating position to leave MLS for a cheaper transfer fee.
Hopefully, in the future MLS will raise its salary cap and restrictions on DP deals. With only three DP contracts permitted to each team, it was a prudent decision for both Chivas and New York to not give Agudelo a hefty contract. Yet, if say each team had five or seven DP contracts at its disposal, then retaining the young striker wouldn't have been as much of a gamble. That will be key in enticing young Americans to stay. It might be difficult to retain a player if say Manchester United is interested, but the league shouldn't be losing young players to leagues outside of Europe's top six leagues (England, Spain, Italy, France, Holland and Germany).
MLS will likely be successful in recruiting in global stars Frank Lampard and Kaka in the future, but as proven with David Beckham, any major interest in both players will likely be short-term. It is great for the league that it is able to recruit marketable stars but it is a road that has already been traveled.
What MLS needs next is figure out a way to make it more attractive for young homegrown players to stay. To stop selling the likes of Agudelo without ready made replacements and to not allow talented prospects like Liverpool youth product and U.S. youth international Marc Pelosi to slip through the cracks. Imagine seeing a league with many young talented American players facing off against the global stars that it can now attract.
Now, that would be must-watch TV.