Taking Stock of MLS's Offseason Trends: Star Sales, Big Coaching Hires
As MLS gets ready to kick off its 24th season, it does so amid an offseason with a couple of clear trends.
A number of household names have been offloaded in outgoing transfers, and with a changing of the guard both on the field and in the coach's box, there's bound to be a considerably different look to the league in 2019.
The mass exodus of stars and marketable young talents has a two-pronged effect. On one hand, it's a blow for fans who have either come to get to know the main players or were drawn into certain teams or games because of them. On the other, it marks the progression of a growing league. When the perceived bigger leagues and clubs come calling for your talent with increasing regularity, something is going right. The evolution of the MLS coach is also a key component to the league's product, and four hires have opened some eyes and upped the ante.
So with less than a month to go until the next campaign kicks off, what should we make of the clear offseason trends? We break it down:
CREDITOR: Luis, MLS has lost a ton of starpower this offseason, and it came close to losing even more. David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Miguel Almiron: They’re all gone. That's two MVPs and the subject of the league's biggest outgoing transfer fee ever. We already knew Alphonso Davies was leaving after his fall sale to Bayern Munich, Zack Steffen is set for a summer move to Man City, Tyler Adams had long been expected to join RB Leipzig and 2018 assist leader Borek Dockal has bolted too, with his loan expiring. Luciano Acosta was in serious talks to go to PSG, Carlos Vela appeared to be on Barcelona’s radar, Zlatan nearly bolted after one season and Kaku was the subject of transfer talks with Club America as well, but all four appear to be staying put, at least for now. But is the offloading of all this talent ultimately a good thing for the league?
ECHEGARAY: It's obviously difficult to generalize and you have take each player's situation separately. Giovinco's for example, seemed to have an air of frustration around it given the player's explosive comments on the way out, while Villa knew it was time for him to leave. But Almiron's transfer is a good example for how this league can operate: find a young talent, develop him, sell him for a high fee to Europe and invest the funds in another star or rising talent. Luckily, Atlanta already had its replacement in mind for a while, in Pity Martinez, who I actually think has a chance to be even better than Almiron was in his two seasons in Atlanta. But when you look at other teams, did they do enough to replace their star power? NYCFC and Toronto for example. Their recent responses by getting Alexandru Mitrita (who was reportedly bought for $8.5 million) and Terrence Boyd, respectively, could help, but they don't compare to Villa and Giovinco. Time will tell, I guess.
CREDITOR: In those specific cases, we’ll see what those teams continue to do. Toronto isn’t done remaking its team just yet, and Mitrita, a 23-year-old Romanian talent with lofty potential, could wind up being a superb signing, but looking at the big picture, embracing becoming a selling league will put pressure on all 24 (and counting) front offices to constantly be on their toes. There’s no sitting back anymore. Atlanta’s been at that point since its inception, looking to spend big on transfer fees with the vision of profiting and reloading. There are multiple ways to win, sure, but if clubs want to keep up, they’ll have no choice but to follow suit. It’s O.K. to lose starpower. It happens to every big club and league around the world, but how you react and what you do with the funds received from these big sales is what will lay the groundwork for league-wide growth.
ECHEGARAY: Absolutely. In the end, losing stars is inevitable and laying the foundations for a bigger picture will ultimately determine long-term success. One major move that I am seeing is the focus now shifting towards the role of the manager and the new faces coming in, namely Matias Almeyda (San Jose), Frank de Boer (Atlanta) and Guillermo Barros Schelotto (LA Galaxy). What do you make of those signings and who do you think has the bigger challenge in 2019?
CREDITOR: Caleb Porter's return, with Columbus, is a notable one too, and I think that luring big-name coaches is also a big step in continuing to grow this league. Almeyda's challenge is by far the biggest, given where San Jose has finished in recent seasons, but he, de Boer and Schelotto have all had varying degrees of success on big stages (de Boer's most recent stop at Crystal Palace not withstanding), and increasing the level of brilliant minds should have a trickle-down effect on the field. MLS is a league of changing trends, though. Last year, we saw the influx of young, Latin American DP-types, and we're not seeing as much of an emphasis on that anymore, at least not in bulk. This winter, it seems to be the trend of the coaching splash and big-name sale. Ultimately these things will all work in concert together, and that's when you'll start to see things take off even more.
ECHEGARAY: I think Almeyda has the biggest challenge but in a way, it's one that San Jose fans, and himself, are looking forward to. I talked to Almeyda last year after his hiring, and everything about the conversation told me that he wasn't just planning on a change of philosophy, he was working on a revolution. Whether it works or not, that will be determined, but his arrival is another bold statement for this league. De Boer comes with a specific philosophy, and in a way, his situation I find the most intriguing as the defending champions now have to prioritize keeping the ball, as opposed to pressing it and being more direct. It should be fun to watch. I'm a bit worried for Schelotto, not because he's not a strong manager, but because the Galaxy's biggest vulnerabilities are at the back, and it's going to take time for some defensive resiliency to return to Los Angeles. Can't forget about Porter, of course–I'm thinking the Crew should be very, very excited for the new season.
CREDITOR: For sure. Ultimately it's all about raising the bar, and that's what these player sales and coaching hires should accomplish, in theory. But is every team equipped to handle the shift in priority? Is every one ambitious enough to get there? These are the new questions teams have to be asking of themselves and that the league has to be asking of its teams. Don Garber has lofty stated goals for his league, but he'll need more than a handful of its teams to play ball to get there–not to mention loosening the pursestrings some to help facilitate it. Signing and cultivating marketable talent are obvious core keys. Giovinco, Villa, Almiron–they were all appointment-viewing players and attractions away from home. Adams has the potential to be U.S. cornerstone for the next decade. But now teams have no choice but to shift their thinking into being unafraid to move on from them while being prepared to adequately replace them. They don't all have to operate with the same budget or in the same manner, but you're starting to see pressure applied and that should–again, in theory–raise the bar, if all parties cooperate.
ECHEGARAY: One thing is for sure, MLS is now diversifying when it comes to growth: attain talent, retain talent, grow talent. Like you said, it's about being unafraid to turn over the new page once a star player leaves by also making sure there is a plan for what happens next.
CREDITOR: Taking a step back–the league is luring coaches from Boca Juniors and Chivas. It's selling players to Bayern (three if you include the youth signings of Taylor Booth and Chris Richards) and having PSG come calling at the transfer deadline. In fact, the biggest drama of the January window arguably involved MLS talent, between Almiron's sale that sparked an uptick in Google searches for his name in the UK and Acosta's potential sale that didn't come off. It's a changing of the times, and MLS's clubs would be wise to embrace it.