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.