The growing list of talent leaving MLS this offseason reads like the beginning of a Best XI honor roll. Plenty of star power is departing for an array of reasons, and that is not a positive as the league heads into its 18th season.
Brek Shea's prospective move from FC Dallas to Stoke City would be just the latest in a series of high-profile departures from the league that depends heavily on its superstars for exposure, fan relations and stability.
That is not to say that Shea is the face of the league, but he is a face of the league, considering his national team experience and somewhat mainstream recognition, even if he isn't playing in a major market. What he represents is a young American talent with World Cup hopes who is competing on home soil, close to the fans who will theoretically be rooting him on all the way to Brazil 2014.
Potentially losing Shea, on the heels of Juan Agudelo's strong link with a move to Celtic, would be another offseason uppercut that connects and forces MLS to consider another way to provide incentive for clubs to hold onto their in-demand talent.
Of course there is a balance to strike. No club is going to hold back a player against his will, especially with national team and earning-potential ramifications in play, and good business is good business. But as MLS commissioner Don Garber said last week at the MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis, "I think I'm a lone wolf on this, but I'd like to have every young player that plays in our league to stay here and be Landon Donovan and hopefully one day retire here. But I get that that's not the reality, that there are opportunities overseas to perhaps play at a different level, and that's the reality of the world we live in.
"I'm the guy that always says Juan [Agudelo] ... he played in the Red Bull academy, he's an emerging national team player. I want some kid who is in the Ironbound section of Newark to watch him wearing an MLS club jersey and dream to be him one day. He has a better chance of doing that here, from our perspective in terms of the value of that ascension, than playing at Celtic, but it's not my call entirely, obviously."
Despite Garber's strongest hopes, the reported financial considerations for Shea, FC Dallas and the league make his move to Stoke, should it be completed, a no-brainer. In any other year, MLS could handle a departure like that and carry on. The thing is, though, potentially losing the likes of Shea and Agudelo would just pile onto the already lengthy departure list this winter. Incoming and outgoing transfers are part of any league's operations, but for MLS, a league built around a finite set of widely recognizable talent, this offseason has been rather harsh.
David Beckham, Fredy Montero and Carlos Valdes have all left the league. Beckham for good, Montero and Valdes at the very least for all of 2013. All three were monumental figures for their respective franchises.
And there's more.
Honduran Olympic hero and integral central midfielder Roger Espinoza left Sporting Kansas City on a free transfer to join Wigan Athletic. Juan Pablo Angel, one of the most successful Designated Players in league history, has been rumored to be returning to a club in his native Colombia. Kevin Hartman, who holds numerous league goalkeeping records and showed in 2012 that his tank is far from empty at age 38, is conspicuously absent from an MLS roster as preseason camps open around the league.
That's not all, either.
Say what you want about Rafa Marquez -- and most of us have, and then some -- but he was another familiar face with marketing power both south of the border and for the Mexican-American population within the United States. Freddy Adu, on the outs from the Philadelphia Union, is another talent that, even though he may have underperformed, still carried name recognition for the casual fan.
With Donovan "definitely" (Bruce Arena's word) coming back to the LA Galaxy in 2013, the league avoids losing its top American face. Even so, for all of the strides MLS has made in improving its international signings and luring quality players with worldwide renown to the league, it has a new-found problem in keeping ones it has been able to boast as its own.
One of last year's adidas' miCoach commercials -- the one that continues to get played as the most widely seen advertisement for MLS -- prominently features Beckham, Montero, Espinoza and Shea. The lone highlighted carryovers into this season from the ad are Houston's Will Bruin and Portland's Darlington Nagbe. Both players are rising stars in the league with bright futures in their own right, but they are not yet talents who demand the spotlight and draw in neutral fans.
The challenge for MLS in 2012 was to continue growing the league on its new TV platform with NBC and attract a greater live audience while enhancing the quality of play. The task at hand in 2013 is to continue doing so, but all while building, cultivating and hyping a new cast of recognizable talent so that the league can overcome its myriad of major personnel losses this winter.
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