Monday MLS Breakdown: Buying or selling? MLS seeks the best of both worlds

Balance represents a critical component in the parity-fueled world of MLS and the league faces critical decisions about how to tip the scales.

NEW YORK – A surge of outgoing traffic during the January transfer window disrupted the equilibrium usually struck and prompted some consternation about the state of affairs.

Although a club rarely expends the fees it procures on direct replacements, the proceeds usually fund moves for several players. Not this time. A modest number of acquisitions hardly compensated for the departures of established figures like Roger Espinoza, Fredy Montero, Andy Najar, Brek Shea and Carlos Valdés. And the setbacks caused by their defections paled in comparison to the loss of the irreplaceable David Beckham.

While the focus always tends to fall on the negatives, the league now operates from a position where it can replace departing stars by integrating fresh faces and leaning on its loyal and productive stalwarts to fill the void, MLS executive vice president, player relations and competition Todd Durbin said recently.

“I see the players coming up,” Durbin said. “I see them stepping in. To me, the issue isn't sustaining the system. I think we do a fantastic job of that. To me, right now, it's about taking it and having explosive growth. We are keeping the important guys we need to keep. We're signing the best young domestic players. The question for us now over the next three or four years now is taking that and saying how are we going to explode that.”

MLS currently has a stated goal of competing with the best leagues in the world in 2022. Although the standard continues to improve with each passing year, the league isn't close to satisfying that objective yet. Devising a path to reach that improbable point on such an accelerated time frame created internal debate about how best to chart the proper course.

Most competitions operating within MLS' financial parameters – a pliable budget structure nominally pegged at $2.95 million with mechanisms capable of driving that figure into the low eight figures – cultivate talent and ship it elsewhere at a profit. The usual business model has its place within the American structure as evidenced by the league's conservative player sales, but the continued pursuit of an improved level of play also requires the importation of players capable of driving the league onwards and supplying the extra touch of class.

The tension between those two approaches ultimately yielded to a more pragmatic approach. By investing significantly to develop youth players and using transfer proceeds to bolster the top end of squads, the league eventually struck the necessary philosophical balance.

“Where we have landed in all of this is that we want to be in a position where we are doing both,” Durbin said. “In five to 10 years, we want to be in a position where we are developing players at a world class standard and we're still out in the marketplace trying to bring in top international players as well. It can't be either or. It has to be both.”

Much of the focus at this point falls on the burgeoning academy system. Clubs have plunged significant resources into their youth setups over the past five years. The results – a handful of players breaking into the first team, a host of hopefuls falling away without a trace and one high-profile transfer involving Najar and Anderlecht – do not yet justify the expenditures. And they likely will not for the next couple of years as the model takes hold. 

“We've taken a significant step,” Durbin said. “We're now there. We now have clubs. We now have people there. Now we need to take what is there and move it to the next level, take that massive investment we've made and move it forward.”

The next step involves changing the player evaluation metrics to reflect those systemic advances. MLS – with the cooperation of U.S. Soccer – has established a developmental system capable of guiding players through the youth system. The recent agreement with the USL potentially creates a similar route for players stuck between the youth and the first-team ranks.

With those pieces in place, the paradigm can shift from comparing players against their domestic peers to weighing their credentials in the world market. By producing better players according to those standards, the league benefits in two ways: it increases the level of the domestic competition with better homegrown talent and permits the league to export more players to create room for the next crop of promising prospects..

“For us, the focus is making sure that when we do it, we're smart about it and we have a system in place to replace the players who are leaving,” Durbin said. “That is going to come not only from producing more players out of our system, but also being smart with the resources we have coming in to go out and sign players.”

The key to processing all of those winter departures rests in that concept, according to Durbin. Shipping out those expensive players creates opportunities to introduce new talent. MLS retains scouts in various locations and spends ample funds to track pertinent competitions in Central and South America to help its clubs managed those situations. The efforts have garnered mixed results on the personnel front given the meager transfer fees usually offered, but their mere presence inspires hope that the balance between distribution and procurement will not veer in the wrong direction.

“We're constantly monitoring that,” Durbin said. “It's one of the benefits of our structure: we can have a holistic view of it as opposed to looking at it as a case-by-case basis. What I'll say – at least for this year – is that our story hasn't been written. Our window hasn't closed yet. We don't actually know the upshot of where and how that money is going to be spent.”

Only time will tell whether the eventual replacements will replicate the feats of their predecessors. Even if they do not, MLS will not divert from its principles to supply a short-term fix. It must, however, ensure the proper balance remains over the long haul to ensure those directives foster the expected growth over the next several years.

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