Tottenham Hotspur visit North Middlesex Hospital

Toronto FC, backed by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, is now a major player in Major League Soccer’s all important (and never-ending) image stakes, and Don Garber’s Quixotic quest to make America’s soccer league compete with the best Europe has to offer by 2022. Under the leadership (we presume, because as of writing we have no clue who or what pulled this heist off) of Tim Leiweke as president and CEO, the club will add 31 year old striker Jermain Defoe and almost certainly Michael Bradley, the 26 year old American midfielder who last played for AS Roma and who will be a key figure in Brazil for the World Cup. All for a reported cost of $100 million dollars, which I cannot write without hearing Mike Myers do his Dr. Evil shtick.

If this was Sunderland, there might be a bit of chatter in the English papers. But this is TFC, a team with an all-time league win percentage of 23% whose fan base still sings the name of a journeyman striker who last played for PNE before becoming their first major signing in 2007.

In other words, this is really weird, you guys.

Despite the world ending craziness involved here, the story should be as obvious as it is stunning: crappy club in financially conservative league signs great players, change gonna come. All you need to know is right there in the push alert (all anyone needs to know about anything is in push alerts). But if you want to be pedantic about it, basically there are more teams in the world than there are consistently good players in the prime of their careers. And so the more money a team spends to buy some of those players, the better players they’ll get, and the better those teams will play. So the richer the team (and league), the better it will be. Repeat ad infinitum and trophies!

So, logically, it should follow that for MLS to compete to be the best in the world—or, rather, its club front offices in tandem with MLS HQ—it needs to make more of these kinds of deals to get the best players. And that means it would need to figure out a fiscally responsible way to allow teams to spend more to compete over and above the limits of MLS’ single entity structure, in which the league co-owns its member clubs and instills a max budget and max salary per player (for an explanation of single entity, read this). Whether that means a $10 million team budget or added DP slots, I don’t know.

This is kind of true, but it doesn’t quite jibe with the clumsy reality of football. All winning teams need to spend to compete, but unless you’re Man City or PSG, you can’t just spend to compete. In MLS, you can’t just spend to compete at all, because the league won’t let you. And anyway, you won’t win many MLS Cups. And before you say, “LA Galaxy!”, a quick tour of their roster reveals a mostly-American team including Landon Donovan who has been there since 2005, Omar Gonzalez since 2009, Todd Dunivant since 2009, etc. etc. As for this year’s winners SKC, there are more home grown players than DPs.

But these teams can’t compete with the best of La Liga and the Premier League, right? Well we don’t actually know that until we set up an intercontinental club competition, but the answer is certainly no, they can;t. But then La Liga and the EPL are what they are because one has become quite adept at producing talented young players, and the other loves football more than life itself and has learned a way to turn that love into money to buy really good Spanish players. This is of course a caricature, but you see my point.

If I’m America and I want a really good soccer league, I know the one way to go about it isn’t to buy the world’s best players and hope for the best. It would be awesome for a year or so until one by one each team went bankrupt. So I can only do the one thing with a hope in hell of working: producing good or even elite players and then spending the money to keep them here, and, if necessary, sell the very good ones at a lucrative premium to the best clubs in Europe.

This is a slightly more cost-effective strategy than the Westervelt wet dream of scrapping single entity completely and letting MLS clubs compete in the financially idiotic European transfer market. The idea this will somehow make MLS a contender is ludicrous. The market can’t bear that kind of market malfeasance, for one. What you’ll get a mediocre soup of charlatan agents hocking off kids with German and Spanish pedigrees who are no good than what the league already employs. I don’t want to drink that soup.

I write “player development” like it’s a thing that you can just kind of do. Even so, despite the wide spread belief that elite players absolutely NEED to be developed along very specific lines with all the right coaches and the right techniques (usually involving something Dutch and something Spanish) and the moon being in the 7th house, producing good players often comes to down to giving them playing time alongside other good players, letting them do their thing, and then watching as they suddenly score 25 goals in a single season. And we know from America’s dominance in the summer Olympic games that, when this nation needs to, it can produce the best athletes in the world. Football should be no different.

So while Bradley’s arrival, an American player in his prime, is huge news both for the perennially awful Toronto FC, it’s perhaps in a way as important as news that the same club today signed their 17 year old academy player Jordan Hamilton to the first team. Bradely is one more American midfielder in his prime playing at home, in America (well, Canada, but it all works).

Comments (10)

  1. Disappointing to read Toronto FC have so little time for their youth players they are now attempting to set fire to some of them.

    • How do you figure? If anything they were trying to get a USL team in Hamilton so they could develop these kids, putting them automatically on first team doesnt mean developing them

    • Bradley and Defoe are grabbing all of the headlines, but TFC’s change in management is even more exciting when you see that they are partnering with a USL Pro team to loan young players to that otherwise wouldn’t get playing time (even before these big signings), have hired a new (supposedly better) director for the TFC Academy, in the last year or so have expanded their academy to go down to U12 teams, will participate in the new OPDL, and also the Ontario 1 League. TFC truly is interested in more than just buying big name players.

  2. Brilliantly said Richard! (Well, except for the international club competition thing.)

    What will make MLS a powerhouse, absent a financial revolution in which soccer becomes a commercial power to rival the big three sports, is developing world-class players. Nothing else is going to matter.

    Dribs and drabs of foreign talent is not going to matter; we’ve seen the Gulf states and China try to develop in that direction, and it’s not doing even as well as MLS.

  3. Yes, dribs and drabs of foreign talent won’t matter. But when a good 10-13 year old north american athlete is having to choose between focusing on soccer or, say, basketball, and they don’t see opportunities here for good players, they are not going to choose soccer. So when MLS teams spend big to keep players like Donovan and Gonzalez and bring back players like Bradley and Dempsey it IS about development, it’s about putting DOMESTIC talent here in the shop window for young players to see. This isn’t a one or the other scenario, but investing in top American talent in hopes of the next generation of talent taking notice.

  4. Why would the removal of single entity and the salary cap cause all these teams to go bankrupt? Aren’t the owners fiscally responsible enough to avoid that? And wouldn’t buying the best players in the world increase interest in MLS and drive more revenue?

    • Not nearly fast enough to sustain costs of competing against European, South American transfer market for top talent. None of it adds up, despite fantastic claims from supporters of pretty castles in the sky.

      • And to add to what Richard said, currently MLS teams don’t compete against each other for players. That keeps costs down a lot. If all of a sudden TFC and LA went into a bidding war for Bradley we might be talking about a $15 million transfer fee instead of $10 million.

  5. Richard you don’t want to drink the soup? You need to taste the soup, Rich, taste the soup (said with a Trinidadian accent, of course)

  6. Good article except for this paragraph:

    “I write “player development” like it’s a thing that you can just kind of do. Even so, despite the wide spread belief that elite players absolutely NEED to be developed along very specific lines with all the right coaches and the right techniques (usually involving something Dutch and something Spanish) and the moon being in the 7th house, producing good players often comes to down to giving them playing time alongside other good players, letting them do their thing, and then watching as they suddenly score 25 goals in a single season. And we know from America’s dominance in the summer Olympic games that, when this nation needs to, it can produce the best athletes in the world. Football should be no different.”

    I think that this is a bit of an overly-simplistic understanding of what the American game truly lacks in terms of competing internationally. It’s not simply a matter of producing good athletes, we already probably have some of the best pure athletes playing for the USMNT in the world. Look at Messi, does anyone confuse him for an athletic god?

    No what we lack is a combination of technical ability, (ie touch, control, passing, dribbling) and tactical know-how. And the latter isn’t simply a matter of copying what other countries do, (our players would never thrive in a system like the one Spain plays) but a development of a tactical approach that would maximize the manner in which American players develop and understand the game as well as one which is effective at exploiting the weaknesses of other nation’s tactics.

    Europe and South America are simply far ahead of the rest of the world and us at understanding the game. It’s akin to different nation’s relative understanding of nuclear physics. Every country has scientists, but some countries have better foundations upon which those scientists can advance their studies and build upon them. These are the two things that we need to focus on and that’s the ever improving technical standard of the league is important. Soccer is a sport that is specifically designed to be technical. It’s like teaching the rest of the world gridiron and expecting them to understand how to read zone defenses, they can have the fastest strongest players in the world and the learning curve would still be steep.

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