Young stars show MLS' growth but next step is for league to let them leave
In the past, Major League Soccer clung to what it had with white-knuckled fists.
If you were a promising young player -- particularly a promising young American player -- good luck convincing the powers that be to let you chase your European dreams. If you were an agent representing an accomplished veteran, that meant the league coveted your interest, no matter the veteran's age or how far removed he was from his prime.
As the league continues to grow in quality and self-esteem, both dynamics are changing, one more tangibly than the other. The experiences of the top three young players in ESPN FC's #MLSRank countdown, Atlanta United's Miguel Almiron, Orlando City's Cyle Larin and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta, are illustrative.
It has felt as though Larin has had one foot across the pond from the moment he arrived in Orlando as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 SuperDraft. Rumors have linked the 22-year-old Canadian forward with bigger leagues for years, and they haven't abated even as his numbers have slightly fallen off in 2017 in the wake of his recent DUI arrest.
The top Google autofill recommendation when you type in his name is "Cyle Larin transfer." Even if the logistics behind any potential move are complicated, Larin's time in Orlando is borrowed.
Contrary to popular perception, that's OK. There remains a stigma about the idea of being a selling league, especially when MLS for years has trumpeted its desire to become a "league of choice." In actuality, accepting its current standing in the global food chain is the next step in its evolution.
"The criticism of MLS for the past 10 years has been that it's a retirement league," Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "If the pendulum now swings and the stigma is that we're a selling league, that's a heck of transformation from where we were. I would much rather be a selling league than a retirement league. The selling league, even in its most negative connotation, means that you're acquiring lots of talented young players who are choosing to play in your league."
If MLS is to bridge the sizable chasm that still remains between it and the top European leagues, the capital has to come from somewhere. This is a sustainable way of doing so: cultivate prospects, sell at a profit, reinvest those resources into infrastructure and additional talent. That's FC Dallas' business model in a nutshell, a blueprint that has turned FCD into a perennial contender in the West despite a payroll dwarfed by competitors like Los Angeles and Seattle.
"We want to be the ones that opens opportunities for these young players," Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo told ESPN FC in a recent phone interview. "We always want them to be in the best situations for them to succeed. ... If we move players from here to Europe, to some of the top teams in the world, that's a reward for the player. We're not here to stop a player from growing. We're here to help them develop."
Clavijo's frankness comes from acute self-awareness: "There are teams that develop players, and there are teams that buy them. We develop players."
Now, the caveats. Teams are still disincentivized from selling off young talent. Whereas clubs typically cover the full cost of incoming transfer fees, MLS as a governing body skims a portion of the outgoing profits off the top -- a holdover from the "league of choice" era and an example of a particularly heavy-handed decree from the league offices in New York.
Clavijo's philosophical musings are all well and good, but they're going to be put to the test in the coming weeks. Acosta revealed his desire this past weekend to move to Europe sooner rather than later, ideally as early as this summer transfer window. Would Dallas, which currently sits in second place in the Western Conference, really be willing to part with one of its best players in the thick of the playoff race?
Clavijo might point to Fabian Castillo's move to Turkey last August as proof of Dallas' willingness to sell, but his loan was hugely contentious at the time. And as thrilling as the Colombian winger was to watch, and as central as he was to how FCD played, his move is not the same thing as offloading an up-and-coming U.S. national team prospect a year out from the World Cup.
"Talk is one thing," ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said. "Action is another. While some franchises are talking about selling their young players and letting them move on, tell me how many of those teams have done that."
Twellman knows well the flipside. Preston North End of the English Championship offered New England what would have been one of the largest transfer fees in MLS history for Twellman during his playing days, only for the league to dismiss out of hand the idea of parting with one of its most marketable young stars. The league is evolving on the issue, Twellman says, but it's not quite there yet.
"Until the FC Dallases of the world sell a Kellyn Acosta, it's conversation," Twellman said. "It's just talk."
Where the league has made actual gains is in obtaining younger stars. The average age of all Designated Players was 27.6 at the beginning of this season, almost two years younger than at any point this decade.
Atlanta United has been at the vanguard of that particular revolution. Many expansion clubs have talked a big game about putting the on-field product above billboard value. None have ever backed that up quite like Atlanta, all of whose DPs were 23 or younger when they signed and each of whom has been instrumental in its first-year success.
Josef Martinez has quickly established himself as one of the top forwards in the league, and Hector Villalba has been on an absolute tear lately. At the center of it all has been the 23-year-old Almiron, one of the costliest purchases in MLS history who has backed up every bit of the hype so far.
Almiron's recruitment shows just how much heft and legitimacy the league has gained especially in South America over the past few years. Almiron was intrigued by MLS even before he heard of Atlanta's interest; he was sold the moment he heard the voice on the other end of the line.
"Tata was really important," Almiron said of United coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino, previously of FC Barcelona and the Argentine national team. "Ninety-nine percent, when he called, I didn't hesitate at all. It's really important when a coach of that stature calls you, tells you he wants you to be a part of his team."
Word spreads, and Almiron is among the South American expats extolling the virtues of MLS' rising standard of play and the benefits of living in the U.S. He's also open about using the league as a potential stepping stone.
"This is an important step in my career," Almiron told ESPN FC. "I aspire to one day play in Europe, that's maybe why some people criticized the move. But I'm happy with where I'm at. I'm enjoying the present."
To be so open about his career goals would have been a faux pas in recent years in a league still sensitive about its place in the world. That, slowly, is changing. Maybe by the time Almiron has the chance to pursue his long-term aspirations, MLS' willingness to allow its young standouts the opportunity to move abroad will have shifted, too.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.