When Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley take the stage on Monday for the happiest day in Toronto soccer since Major League Soccer first awarded the city an expansion franchise, the moment will not only be the signaling of a new era at Toronto FC.
It will also be a very loud message that the days of being able to run an MLS team on the cheap are coming to an end.
You will hear proclamations that committing a reported $100 million to two players is fiscally irresponsible, and not in line with the prudence that has helped MLS grow slowly and steadily for the better part of two decades. You will hear that it threatens to turn MLS into a league of haves and have-nots, with big spending, big city teams overpowering smaller market clubs.
Don’t buy it for a second.
For starters, the idea that there are small-time MLS owners who can’t simply keep up with spending is largely a myth. The reality is that some of the teams most notorious for being unwilling to spend are run by some of the league’s richest owners. From Colorado’s Stan Kroenke, to New England’s Robert Kraft, to Chivas USA’s Jorge Vergara, you have financially strong owners who have gotten away with investing far less in their MLS teams than some other owners with much shallower pockets, but way more ambition.
The Michael Bradley transfer saga also helped shine more of a light on some of the misconceptions regarding teams that simply can’t spend. Look at the four teams sources tell Goal USA definitely bid for Bradley’s services: Sporting Kansas City, Columbus and Philadelphia, all of which tabled eight-figure bids when told that Bradley was available.
Kansas City isn’t exactly a major media market, but that didn’t stop a bullish Sporting KC ownership group from boosting their bid up to a whopping $40 million offer including salary and transfer fee contributions. It was enough to be sitting at the final table before Bradley chose TFC, which had a bigger bid and also the allure of giving Bradley a team he could help build into a winner.
Columbus isn’t a big city either, but that didn’t stop new owner Anthony Precourt from ponying up north of $15 million in order to have a chance at a player head coach Gregg Berhalter surely begged him to take a shot at.
Then you have the Union, who do reside in a major media market, but have a reputation for being one of the most frugal and cash-strapped ownership groups in the league. That same group took a chance at signing a player who would have been perfect for the Union on so many levels, and while the $15 million bid wound up being less than a third of what Bradley ultimately ended up going for, it showed some willingness to spend and loosen the purse strings to make the Union better.
Does this mean we are already at a point where teams absolutely have to spend millions on salaries to compete? Not quite yet. Teams can still be competitive in MLS by being smart and effective with international player signings and drafting, but that is only going to get tougher to pull off as teams start mastering the art of combining shrewd roster building with big-money signings like Defoe and Bradley.
No, not every team can or will spend close to nine figures on two players, and nobody is suggesting that MLS needs all 19 teams doing just that, but as the league relaxes spending rules to give teams avenues to flex their financial muscle, the excuse that MLS owners can’t spend big money just rings more and more hollow.
If anything, the MLS owners club is only going to get richer and richer as New York City FC and Orlando City prepare to join the league in 2015. Both ownership groups are owned by billionaires and potential expansion teams in Miami and Atlanta would also feature deep-pocketed owners.
In other words, the stakes are rising, and it’s up to existing MLS owners to either buy in and compete, or cash out and leave a seat for someone better equipped to handle playing in the increasingly high-stakes realm of professional soccer in North America.
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
Much like the game musical chairs, the MLS coaching carousel has come to a close with one team being left alone, looking around for a way out of a losing situation.
That team is the Colorado Rapids, and even after securing the first-round pick and cash it was looking for to release Oscar Pareja from his contract to take the FC Dallas job, the Rapids still feel like losers in the offseason coaching race.
Not only did Pareja leave, but as expected, assistant coach Wilmer Cabrera left to become Chivas USA’s head coach. Now the Rapids head into MLS SuperDraft week without a coach and without a clear sign of just who will replace Pareja.
Robin Fraser had been considered the front-runner for the job, but that was before the delay in the Pareja departure made a Fraser move away from the New York Red Bulls more difficult. Now, the Rapids could wind up being in the same boat FC Dallas was just in, except Colorado would be trying to pry away an assistant rather than a head coach.
And if not Fraser, then who? Former Portland Timbers coach and Rapids player John Spencer is the other leading candidate, and after that it’s anybody’s guess. Former Chicago Fire head coach Denis Hamlett is available, as is Jesse Marsch. Richie Williams is coaching the U.S. Under-17s but could surely be pried away for a MLS head coaching gig.
Whomever Colorado settles on will be facing an unenviable position joining the team so close to preseason. Yes, you can point to Mike Petke as someone who didn’t become Red Bulls head coach until preseason a year ago, but Petke was already with the team, and was around for the Combine, draft, and start of preseason.
The next Rapids head coach isn’t going to have that luxury and if the Rapids wind up not landing their top choices, they will have themselves (and FC Dallas) to blame for it.
MLS COMBINE KICKS OFF TO MIXED REVIEWS
The best way to describe the 2014 MLS Combine is a showcase for an impressive crop of central defenders, but also a harsh reminder of just how slim the pickings are for attacking options.
With two days in books down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the center backs have impressed along with UConn goalkeeper Andre Blake, who has wowed scouts with his quickness, length and confidence in goal. The Jamaican international looks every bit like a No. 1 overall pick option, though not for the team currently holding the top pick, D.C. United.
D.C. could wind up fielding a good number of offers from teams intrigued by Blake’s potential, but there will probably be fewer teams willing to trade up for a center back considering there are probably as many as eight central defenders who can be categorized as first-round quality.
The lack of attacking options in the pool just might lead MLS to reconsider making an improved offer to UConn freshman striker Cyle Larin, who would step into the draft as the most highly-rated attacking prospect if he were to sign a Generation adidas deal. MLS already made him an offer, but it was turned down and no improved offer has come yet.
That is likely to change, and with Larin also near Fort Lauderdale training with the Canadian national team, chances are some scouts will make their way out to get a glimpse of the talented striker, and potentially place a call to MLS to offer the 18-year-old forward more money.
In an ideal scenario, Larin could even sign with MLS on Monday and take part in the MLS Combine’s final day on Tuesday morning. If he does, he just might play well enough to rival his college teammate Blake for the top spot in Thursday’s MLS Draft.