The changing transfer marketplace for MLS

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

It used to be almost unheard of for a Major League Soccer club to acquire foreign, quality starters in their prime from solid leagues in Europe and Latin America.

Philadelphia Union’s recent acquisitions of midfielders Chaco Maidana and Vincent Nogueira (and other deals like them) illustrate that it can happen now, but it’s not just because of the rise of MLS.

Economics, corruption, and archaic soccer cultures in Europe and Latin America have opened potential market gaps that MLS is beginning to exploit by offering what their overseas competitors often cannot.

You need not throw millions of dollars at many players. Just offer them a good level of play, the promise of a regular paycheck, first class infrastructure, fairly competitive wages, and a good quality of life. That’s what it takes, given time, because MLS is increasingly a better alternative to overseas clubs and leagues on the decline.

In the game of Moneyball (or Soccernomics), it’s always a matter of finding the undervalued asset. Forget Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Thierry Henry. They’re the outliers and exceptions. We’re going beyond that. And thanks to changing political and economic dynamics, assets once out of reach are now becoming available.

South America: Corruption, violence, insolvency

First, look to South America. The continent’s top leagues are largely dysfunctional.

Gang violence and financial problems have marred Argentina for years.

Corruption has run roughshod through Brazil’s league, where attendance has dropped below that of MLS. Some teams have at times appeared flush with money due to the rising Brazilian economy and its growing middle class, but now the Brazilian real and economy are stagnating and the cracks in the facade are reemerging. Brazilian soccer is on display right now, and the state of the game and the state itself isn’t pretty.

Go elsewhere — Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, or just north of the continental divide to Panama and Costa Rica — and you’ll find teams that have trouble paying their players on time and simply can’t compete economically with clubs in wealthier nations.

What does MLS offer players that these leagues cannot?

  • A steady, reliable paycheck.
  • Freedom from fan violence.
  • High quality of life.
  • Rising level of play that, at its highest levels (RSL, Portland, Los Angeles, etc.), is finally approaching that of Mexico’s league.

Perhaps a player like Chaco Maidana grows tired of being shuffled between teams on loan like he’s no more than a piece of meat. Five teams in four years — was it because he cannot play the game well? Or is it just the nature of the business in South America?

Maybe he has a family. Maybe they want to live in the same house for two straight years. Maybe he doesn’t want to live apart from his wife and children.

With a three-year contract, MLS can offer the stability Maidana and other players like him can find all too rarely in the Latin American leagues.

Caribbean: 40 million people, no good professional league

Next look to the Caribbean.

An estimated 40 million people live in the islands and peripheral mainland countries (Suriname, Guyana, Belize) generally acknowledged as part of the Caribbean region, but there isn’t a single quality major soccer league to be found here. (Though that could change.) Nowhere is as ripe for MLS scouting as the Caribbean.

League officials clearly recognize this, as indicated by this year’s first ever Caribbean player combine. How many unpolished diamonds can be found here? How many quality players who scouts may simply never find are playing on unknown club teams in the region? And what kind of potential might the planned MLS club in Miami have to draw players from the Caribbean region?

We should start to find out.

It’s not that Caribbean players have never made it big before. MLS has boasted the likes of Shalrie Joseph, for example.

But the quantity of these good players should rise within the league. Seattle’s Kevin Parsemain looks like an early find from that combine. There will be others. Soccer is like no other major team sport in that you can still have backwater legends that no pro team ever knows about, and Caribbean locales like Suriname can be a place to find them.

Europe: Decline of the PIGS, decay at the fringes

Now turn your eyes toward Europe.

The grand European experiment is showing cracks at the edges. The PIGS — Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain — have seen their economies go down the tubes over the last seven years. The impact upon their football leagues is beginning to be seen.

No, Real Madrid and Barcelona aren’t going anywhere.

Go beyond them, however. Spanish teams like Valencia and Malaga are saddled with massive debts.

The traditional Greek powers in Athens have suffered setbacks as unemployment has risen to nearly 30 percent. Attendance has fallen. Last year, I watched Olympiacos visit crosstown Atromitos in Athens. Dozens of police in riot gear stood in a line outside the stadium, all too aware of the frequency of protests and political violence in Athens in the “troika” era of the last few years, as well as the longstanding potential for conflict during derbies.

Scotland’s league has decayed to the point that only Celtic can definitively lay claim to any sense of superiority, with Rangers being effectively demoted three divisions after its 2012 financial collapse. With just over 5 million people, Scotland’s population isn’t sufficient to support a high end, modern league in Europe. Aside from Celtic, the league is no better than MLS, struggling to stay alive financially.

As teams at the fringes of Europe’s top divisions face the economic problems that trickle through Europe while simultaneously trying to compete with the rising financial commitment required for Champions League contention, they accept the sad reality. Valencia becomes a selling team. Scotland’s Old Firm just becomes old as Rangers collapses into insolvency. Greece’s big three become forgotten in European play. Even the Italian giants lose their shine. Two struggling teams in France’s Ligue 1, Sochaux and Ajaccio, see their captains sign with MLS clubs.

And so it goes.

Parity with the German and English leagues won’t happen just yet. Germany and its league are too sound economically, and England’s TV contracts and foreign benefactors bring financial windfalls that offset English clubs’ overspending.

But elsewhere, market inequities are developing. Financial gaps are opening. Opportunities are arising.

And MLS is beginning to seize the moment.


  1. Great article. I’ve been thinking about these trends but you’re the first to link them all together. Deserves a wider audience.

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    This was a phenomenal article. Well said on all fronts. This is where, if the right moves are made, Garber’s “Top 10 league by 2020” comment can become a reality.
    My opinion is that if the MLS was in any other country in the world, it would garner a ton more respect. It’s lot because it is in America that it constantly gets pushed aside.

    • Agreed, re: America getting pushed aside because it’s America. Top 10 league by 2020 is a realistic goal. It’s not dreaming. Maybe they’re not there yet, but they look on their way.

    • I agree with all of this except your final sentence. I still don’t get this attitude that there is some grand anti-american conspiracy. There isn’t. It’s just that the MLS, and Americans as a whole, simply aren’t good enough to still be taken seriously.

      Once the MLS starts producing world class players – or hell, just players that garner demand from the best teams in the world, then we deserve respect. Otherwise we just sound like a kid crying because no one likes him.

  3. james lockerbie says:

    Single entity is confusing and annoying but it is probably the best way to avoid a lot of the issues you described in this article. That and a free democratic society God bless America

  4. Great article Dan. I have been trying to explain these concepts to some of my euro snob friends. I wish I could get them to read this.

  5. No mention of Asia and Russia?

    • Well …

      What do you think should be mentioned about them?

      • The leagues in Japan, Korea and Australia seem most like MLS (growing interest but still far from the #1 sport, mediocre in-country talent, but a stable working environment and decent wages). I wonder where MLS stands in prestige right now compared to them, and how they project. And I wonder how the Russian league stacks up. There’s lots of money and some decent talent, but stability and environment?

      • I’m not sure that those leagues are really exploiting the market deficiencies to acquire talent. Australia still is nowhere close to MLS’ level and will need years of the kind of growth MLS has seen to become viable. I didn’t take a look at Korea but the J-league has relatively few non-Japanese players. Most of those who are foreign are either Korean or Brazilian, so there is not a lot of diversity there. In contrast, the least diverse MLS teams have as many foreign players as the most diverse Japanese teams. Then, you have teams like Montreal that are absolutely flush with different nationalities. I think MLS has an advantage over those countries in being in the US. The culture is more familiar to Europeans, making it a more attractive option. Proximity makes it easier to get Latin talent. There’s also a smaller culture gap thanks to the nature of US demographics.

      • Concerning player diversity, it seems Japan, Korea, China, and Thailand all have a 3+1 rule for foreign players that limits how many they can have signed at a given time. (3 players from any country + 1 one more from a fellow AFC member)

  6. soccerdad1150 says:

    Dan…you continue to amaze me with the depth of your analysis, and this discussion has given me incredible hope for MLS getting much, much better in a very short time. I do believe the single entity structure is essential to the future, though, until the TV revenues really grow. Everyone knows that with almost no franchises who pay those big, unbelievable salaries (NHL, MLB, NFL, EPL, NBA) don’t survive on gate/merchandise/parking/concessions. It’s TV revenue that moves them to the next level.

    • +1 for both praise of Dan’s piece and the comment about TV revenue. We will become a top 10 league — probably aren’t too far off now, in fact — but we’ll need a much larger TV audience to make that next leap.

  7. Hey, thanks for the nice words, everyone. We were starting to wonder if anyone saw this piece before the comments finally started showing up. 😉 (Comments are my lazy way of gauging readership when I don’t feel like checking the numbers!)

  8. A little late to this, but great post, Dan.

  9. I think it will be a definite top 10 league by 2020. That old adage that this is the land of opportunity is never gonna go away. I think having MLS in 2 countries helps with the anti-American sentiment. Top 5, probably not in our lifetimes, but top 10, absolutely.

  10. I think Diego Valeri basically said this, too, in his MLS Insider video – he could’ve stayed in Argentina, but he was scared to play there any longer. While MLS may not (yet) be attractive to the limited pool of superstars, I think it’s getting a lot more competitive with most of the world’s leagues.

    • Actually, I went looking for Valeri’s quotes on that and gave up when I remembered it was on MLS Insider. So yes, absolutely right. That’s part of what influenced this post, that and picking up a bit about what went into Maidana coming over.

  11. Great article. This is a topic worthy of a long-form piece, but succinctly well done.

  12. Dan, Great article. Thank you. I am curious why you failed to mention the other “growing” leagues in the world that offer the same amenities of the MLS?

    • Well, two reasons, I guess. This is an MLS-focused site, and that’s what we write about. And I can’t speak to those other leagues with as much knowledge as I can MLS. I’m guessing you’re referring to Australia, Japan, Korea, etc., correct?

      • Australia is a bit behind MLS in terms of salary, quality and prestige. Don’t know as much about the Asian ones though.

  13. Dan, AS a reader I would prefer you continue to address the union and the MLS league. I really enjoyed the positive message from this article. MLS is getting better, the other leagues are suffering from bad policy and poor government/economics. So we in turn can look forward to an inflox of American and foriegn players of high quality joining our MLS league. A p.s. there are a few other leagues in the world that may also benefit. would only ruin the pleasant thoughts of top flight players running the pitch at PPL park.

  14. I agree that the MLS can offer many players stability. One reason that the MLS is able to do this is because there is no relegation. Every team knows that it will be playing in the same league every year, which makes it easy to budget. However, in pretty much every other Soccer league, there is the threat of relegation, which can financially bury a club. One season you are playing in the top division, you look to attract quality players that want a higher salary in order to progress and compete towards improving on last years performance, things dont go to plan and you get relegated. Players want to leave in order to play in the top division, and those that dont want to leave are happy to play in a lesser division and earn silly money. The MLS is stable because of this, however, it is also a very boring league. The games are less exciting because less is at stake. In some countries, soccer is life or death, just because of the effect of getting relegated can have on a team, and its supporters.

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