While Don Garber and others in the MLS league office like to talk about how they see MLS growing into becoming one of the biggest leagues in the world, currently it’s still a selling league. That has been proven once again with some of the big sales made this winter. It also shows that it’s not keeping players that leads to league success, but finding the right replacements.
Anyone that follows MLS understands that it’s a selling league. Still lagging behind several European leagues, some South American leagues, and Mexico, it’s difficult for a club to keep a good player for too long. This winter alone, three clubs have lost key components of their team to bigger clubs. It started with Orlando City losing Yoshimar Yotún to Cruz Azul, followed by this week’s sale of Miguel Almirón from Atlanta United to Newcastle United.
If players aren’t leaving for bigger leagues, they’re unhappy with the single-entity system MLS refuses to change or the amount of money they’re receiving. This has led to Sebastian Giovinco’s departure from Toronto FC to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal. While he may be entering a league that isn’t necessarily better, MLS doesn’t have the pull of the bigger leagues that can keep those players.
For most clubs, this situation is quite inevitable. At one time, MLS could fly under the radar as many around the world didn’t believe the league could produce quality players. However, that has changed and some of the world’s top clubs regularly keep an eye on MLS teams to see who might help them in the future. This means that any good young player a team obtains will likely only be at the club for a limited number of years.
The key to success isn’t keeping those players because that’s nearly impossible. Instead, the clubs must be able to either develop their own talent to replace those players or scout young talent that might be a suitable replacement. Even though that player may not be of the same quality at the time, the hope is that they can reach that level in the near future.
This is a problem that affects the league on the field and at the gate. Many American fans of foreign leagues refuse the watch MLS because they claim the quality is inferior and beneath them. While the quality on the field isn’t the same as the world’s top leagues, their refusal to even watch the league does nothing to help it. But MLS is far from the only league to have this situation.
There are many leagues around the world that have this problem and have learned to deal with it. The top teams in the Dutch league, such as Ajax, PSV, and Feyenoord, routinely lose their top players to England, Germany, Spain, and Italy, but have been able to create academies that can produce enough players to replace those losses. In all likelihood, this problem is not going to change for them either. But that league and others that have a higher quality than MLS set good examples.
Nearly every transfer window sees some of the best young talent in MLS depart for foreign leagues. This is a problem that will likely not change any time in the near future. Rather than worrying about keeping these young players at the club, focusing on good young replacements is the key to success.