My last article published, which was on the top 20 players overlooked by MLS, became a topic of debate on the actual quality of the players I picked and their past history of opportunities with the league. The primary reasons I choose these players is because of their recent success in a North American soccer league below MLS. In soccer, traditionally one of the top recruitment sources for clubs is the lower divisions in that country.
Mostly ignoring this option, MLS primarily recruits players from two major sources: amateurs (academy, homegrown players and NCAA/SuperDraft) and players from leagues outside of United States and Canada. I’m a large supporter of player development, especially the College game, although since the draft often plays out more as an MLS promo product the expectations of these players tends to be greater then what should be expected, especially during a rookie season.
I do feel you can improve the overall quality of MLS through recruiting players from foreign leagues, and it can also be very good business. Positive attributes of this are the combination of these players coming from longer established footballing cultures and motivation through being undervalued due to circumstances caused by weaker economies (in some regions/countries) and an overabundance of players.
Most leagues outside of North America are also well covered and in most cases the infrastructure is further developed than in MLS, so there is a great awareness of players in these leagues/countries at all levels of the game. Unlike MLS rookies, most foreign players have a previous track record and as long as you’re honest as an evaluator you should have a good sense of what these players can potentially bring to the MLS.
In my work I cover over 60 leagues statistically and do prospect lists for each league that would be regarded as either equal or a higher quality than MLS currently is, and have a complete playing history of 95% of the players that MLS has brought in from other leagues.
This offseason MLS clubs have so far brought in 30+ players from non-American leagues and instead of breaking down each player individually, I’ve decided to break down the players into four groups that MLS tends to recruit under: Players with previous MLS experience, experienced players with potential upside, experienced players with some concerns and the younger more unproven prospects.
Players with previous MLS experience
This year, compared to others, has seen a large influx of high profile ex-MLSers choosing to return after some time in Europe. My first impression based on the likes of Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst, and Clint Dempsey last summer, is that this was due to greater exposure of the 2014 World Cup selection for the US National Team. However, looking at transfers from the 2009-2010 season it was the opposite where players such as Edu, Jozy Altidore, Brad Guzan and Kenny Cooper instead made their way to Europe.
In terms of the 2014 returnees all are overvalued based on salary, but should also play key roles for their teams during the 2014 MLS Seasons. Bradley has been talked about in detail but should bring Toronto stability in the midfield and based on opportunities could provide some offense as well.
Maurice Edu played a key role during his previous stint with Toronto in MLS and is hoping to do the same with Philadelphia. As long as he can loosen the rust from seeing limited time the past few years in Europe, he should be an impact player in the centre of the Union midfield.
Michael Parkhurst can play either defensive midfield or full back, had a very successful time in Denmark but struggled to make the same impact in the Bundesliga with FC Augsburg. Like Bradley and Edu, Parkhurst’s main role will be to give Columbus stability and be the key player in transitioning play from defense to offense which should give Federico Higuain more freedom. The Crew also signed American goalkeeper Steve Clark who looks to be the starting keeper after playing previously in Norway.
The “returning to MLS” story that might grab most headlines is that of Marco Pappa. Pappa was a key contributor in MLS while he played with the Chicago Fire. The Guatemalan winger played 112 MLS matches scoring 26 goals and 13 assists before MLS sold him to Dutch club SC Heerenven. Pappa never got playing time in the Eredivisie, but at still only 26 he should play a key role for Seattle in 2014 providing support for Dempsey, Cooper and Obafemi Martin.
Experienced players with potential upside
Traditionally the players with the biggest potential are ones with a huge reputation and price tag. With the DP system of MLS, where you can pay a player 100 times more than the average salary of the league, it’s not surprising players such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Marco Di Vaio and Tim Cahill have the greatest impact on their teams and the league.
This season that name is Jermain Defoe and it will be a disappointment if he doesn’t average two goals every three games, so one should expect a 20 goal season from the Englishman with Toronto FC unless for some reason his season is shortened. Arguably Defoe is the only new signing of this caliber, although similar success should be expected from fellow Toronto FC signings as mentioned Bradley, as well as Brazilians Gilberto and Julio Cesar.
Gilberto will be one of the largest transfer fees paid and his salary will be in the top 10 in the league. If he wasn’t overshadowed by others, you would expect him to be a key contributor and one of the top goal scorers in the league. I think Julio Cesar will play a role even if it’s only for half the season, because of his position where I think his experience will be an asset despite his recent struggles at QPR.
Other higher profile players with some expectations include Philadelphia’s Cristian Maidana and from FC Dallas David Texeira. Both players became available because they were not being used by their former clubs, although both were competing and training in better quality leagues than the MLS: Mexico Primera, Argentina Primera and Dutch Eredivisie, and both players will play a larger role in the MLS.
Maidana is a 27 year old Argentinean attacking midfielder/winger whose biggest impact was in Mexico with Atlante and in Russia with Spartak Moscow. With the Union they will be hoping he’ll score more goals than he has done in the past. Texeira is a 23 year old Uruguayan forward who has scored goals when given minutes, including the Uruguay national team, although there will be added pressure on Texeira to see if he can replace the offensive output of recently departed Cooper and David Ferreira.
The off-season moves that impressed me the most is players who should bring quality but for a discounted price. I expect Bradley Orr to provide Toronto some experience in the back similar to his teammate Steven Caldwell did last season. I also like the Union signing of Vincent Nogueira who was a starter in French Ligue 1 the past few seasons with Sochaux, while DC United’s signing of Fernandez Sales looks positive as he is coming off a good season in Spain and could provide some offense from the full back position.
Not surprisingly, the team who I think had the best offseason in terms of quality players for a discount free was the LA Galaxy with the signings of Swedish International Stefan Ishizaki, Canadian International Rob Friend and Brazilian Samuel on loan.
Ishizaki is an attacking midfielder who can score, but also a provider and was second in the Swedish Allsvenskan in assists this past season with 11. Friend is at the end of his career, although his experience and size could provide LA the goal poacher and target on set pieces they were missing last season. Samuel has the potential value as many of the bigger prospects joining the league the past two seasons, although is in on loan and at a reported lower salary. Like the Galaxy did with Juninho, LA can evaluate how he fits before potentially offering him a longer term commitment.
Experienced players with some concerns
I find that in terms of signing new players, historically MLS gets burned the most with players in this category. It’s easy in hindsight to say why a player never worked out but if you look at a their past performance you can see some concerns. One issue is MLS and their clubs’ PR teams who will look at one highlight of a player’s career and market the same expectations for the upcoming season.
I have some small concerns with the players I mentioned above. Based on expectations, I think they will be given the minutes and create the opportunities to make them a vital player during the 2014 season. However, the following players, despite the off season press clippings, I have concerns of the impact they will actually have on the season.
My biggest concerns going into this season is Portland’s signings of Gaston Fernandez and Norberto Paparatto, Vancouver’s signings of Sebastian Fernandez and Nicolas Mezquida and Chivas USA signing Adolfo Bautista, Agustin Pelletieri, and Leandro Barrera.
In all cases their resumes sell a better story than what I feel is the reality. I think the Portland duo will be the most likely to prove me wrong, that being said Gaston Fernandez has been very hit or miss throughout his career and Paparatto has historically been very aggressive in defense, which hasn’t translated well in the MLS.
One could argue that the Whitecaps signings are still young and might have some long term potential. However, currently there are a number of players who fit this role on Vancouver’s roster, so a counter point could be that finding players who provide more leadership and stability would be smarter choices as neither Sebastian Fernandez nor Mezquida have proven to be a regular starter in their career.
Finally, Chivas USA fits the traditional criticism in Adolfo Bautista and Agustin Pelletieri being too old and at the end of their careers, while Leandro Barrera is unproven. The only upside is based on Chivas USA’s current situation these players may get the minutes to prove otherwise, although for a team in this position I question them not using local talent instead.
Younger more unproven prospects
Of all the recruiting methods, this is the one I’m the most critical of and reminds me of just throwing something against the wall and hoping it sticks. Similar to previous concerns I’ve mentioned with MLS Academies, Generation Adidas, and now Caribbean Combine, Special Discovery Signings and even Young DPs, the league and teams are spending money in hopes that they can recoup on their investment. While there are hundreds of prospects in world soccer who generate a return on investment, the number is quite low and based on the lack of success for players MLS have sold to European clubs in the past, and the performance of some of the newer ones in the league, it should be a concern for a league losing money.
My biggest concern this winter is the Montreal Impact signing of Santiago Gonzalez, a player who is known for his goal scoring in the 2nd division of Uruguay. Uruguay's Primera is one of the leagues that I do statistics for and prospects lists and Gonzalez wasn’t in my list for that country. Uruguay is very interesting since almost all the clubs play in the country’s capital of Montevideo, which makes it an easy league to scout on a whole as it doesn’t require much travel and Gonzalez hasn’t registered on anyone’s list since a disappointing performance with Uruguay at the U17 World Cup. Alternatively, there is a number of players in South America in their mid-twenties who consistently score double digit in goals for a top division who could have been brought to the MLS at a similar price.
Last year MLS had a poor season regarding the impact new signings had with their clubs. Some of the only bright spots were Jose Goncalves, Raul Fernandez, Diego Valeri and Claudio Bieler. These are players who had good track records, including the season before they joined MLS, and contracts brought value to their club. Personally, I expect this to always be the case and even in the purchasing of younger players their reputation precedes them.
I’m not sure why MLS struggles, whether it’s a lack of awareness of players, the wrong connections or the fact that the league has an involvement in what each team does, but like being aware of players in the American lower divisions, it’s something they will have to improve to reach their goal of being one of the top leagues in the World by 2020.