Transfer Trash Talk: Are MLS Players Undervalued?

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Alex Olshansky is handing out trips across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart-style, not Titanic.

When a coach or an agent goes to a chairman looking for money, ‘Well, we’ve got this Argentinian and we’ve got this Brazilian, we’ve got this Spaniard, and oh, we’ve got this American.’ That stigma is still there.

The American/MLS soccer community has always had a chip on its collective shoulder when it comes to how outsiders perceive them – or perhaps more accurately— how Americans think outsiders perceive them. The “stigma” narrative makes intuitive sense, and for its believers this “stigma” is at least partially responsible for a wide range of ills to befall American expatriates; everything from Landon Donovan’s failed stints in Germany to Tim Howard’s exit from Manchester United.

But in a game where there is so much money on the line can European teams afford to discriminate against players originating from a certain country or league? And even if there was discrimination towards American players in the past, surely things are changing with the triumvirate at Stoke, Michael Bradley at Roma, and Jozy Altidore recently commanding an American record reported $13M transfer to Sunderland. And it is not just Americans in MLS who have attracted interest from overseas. In the last year, young MLS products Roger Espinoza, Andy Najar, and Fredy Montero were snapped up by Wigan (UK), Anderlecht (BEL), and Sporting Lisbon (POR), respectively. The Sporting Lisbon signing of Montero is already looking like a success as he just went off for a hat trick in his league debut. Are MLS players under-valued and, if so, who should European teams be looking at for the next potential bargain?

Before we look into the future, some critical re-assessing of past moves is in order. Below you will find a listing of the most notable MLS to Europe moves of the past ten years. Some of the transfer fee data is—at best—informed internet guesswork, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. The effort has been made, where enough information is available, to try and grade each move a success or a failure for the team making the purchase (from Villarreal’s perspective the Altidore buy was a failure). For a number of players, most notably Bobby Convey and Mo Edu, imposing this binary choice was very difficult. The methodology for determining a player’s success was a qualitative guess based on a team’s financial investment compared to the value the player created for the team over their tenure. Of course, the proverbial jury is still out on a number of the more recent acquisitions.

Team Pondhopper

Team Pondhopper

Given this data set, it is somewhat hard to argue that MLS players are systematically being under-valued by European teams. What does seem certain is that the appetite for MLS players among European teams has picked up in recent years, with three to four significant moves occurring in each of the past two years (not including loan deals).

When it comes to MLS players, European teams have a predisposition towards youth (average age 23.5) and those with international experience. From a player’s perspective, timing and situation is everything. Some players flounder and come limping back to MLS (Eddie Johnson, Robbie Findley, Kenny Cooper) while others thrive and raise their level (Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley). And then there is Jozy Altidore. He managed to be the most expensive MLS player ever sold, lose most of that value just to see his star rise again, all before the age of 24. Given this, who in MLS is ripe for a move?

Proven Veterans

Omar Gonzalez was originally included on this list, but the Galaxy just locked him up with a DP contract.

Graham Zusi, 26

Zusi’s stock will never be higher than it is right now. The dynamic midfielder can play either on the left or right. He is an international-caliber provider of service and would fit in well on an English team. But, at 26, his European window is already closing.

Landon Donovan, 31

Anyone who saw Donovan do his thing during the Gold Cup knows that he still has what it takes to make an impact in Europe. Perhaps he spends a final year or two at Everton? Or even re-united with David Moyes at Manchester United? Either scenario seems highly improbable, but more absurd things have happened *Cough* Clint Dempsey to Sounders

Young Guns

There are a number of good young MLS players that European scouts are no doubt watching. If recent history is any indication then you would expect at least three or four of these guys to find their way to greener ($) European pastures. But, each of these players must still prove themselves over an extended period of time to warrant a move.

Can you see this kid in the SPL? Kidding...

Can you see this kid in the SPL? Kidding…

Almost Ready?:

Sean Johnson

Bill Hamid

Diego Fagundez

Jack McInerney

Gyasi Zardes

DeAndre Yedlin

Andrew Farrell

Russell Teibert

Darlington Nagbe

Dillon Powers

Jose Villarreal

There is one player who, despite being unproven over multiple seasons, deserves a hard look from a European team.

Chris Klute, 23

Yes, this is the first year Klute has really shown anything. But he has been an absolute beast for the Rapids this year. On top of his stellar on ball defense and beyond-his-years soccer intelligence, check out who is among the top 10 MLS assist men.

Professor Klute....

Professor Klute….

Most European teams would wait to see if Klute gets a national team call-up before pouncing, but a savvy—perhaps Scandinavian—team would do well to acquire him before any USMNT price inflation hits.

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16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tony on 2013/08/19 at 7:29 PM

    Interesting piece — I do think you have to move Convey and Edu to the success column though. Convey was an important player for Reading when they won the Championship and the following year in the Premiership. Both he and Edu were bought for peanuts considering each appeared in almost 100 games for their teams.

    Reply

    • Posted by WilkersonMcLaser on 2013/08/19 at 8:11 PM

      Agreed on Convey and Edu. I would also add Juan Agudelo as a TBD even though his plane hasn’t left the tarmac yet.

      Also, given that Geoff Cameron was a starter last season outside his natural position and looks to be that way this season too, that seems like a success barring a really abrupt change.

      Likewise with Kljestan. Anderlecht has talked about making him captain and he’s been a regular starter for a strong, if not dominant, CL team. Even if he gets thrown out today he’d probably be considered a success by the objective observer (and I’m not even that big a fan of Kljestan, though he played well enough vs Bosnia).

      Reply

      • The reason I was down on Convey is that he had some injuries in there and he was actually the highest fee paid by Reading for any player in their history. In reality he probably was a slight success, so I think you both make a good point.

        As for Edu, I just found it hard to ignore spending $4 million + salary ($1 million a year?) and then at 26 not really getting anything in return. Part of that was down to the unfortunate financial situation at Rangers, but a lot of that was also due to Edu losing value as a player. In reality, Edu probably should have been put down as a “push.”

        Reply

        • Posted by JoshW on 2013/08/29 at 6:39 PM

          Seems like you’re an err on the side of calling something a failure (unsuccessful) type of guy

          Reply

  2. Posted by WilkersonMcLaser on 2013/08/19 at 8:29 PM

    Decent analysis. I’m only not sure the author can so casually dismiss ‘stigma’ as a factor. The tendency towards groupthink and fads is a well documented practice among normal firms, so why not in the business of soccer? In other sectors, it’s called ‘critical mass’ if it works, and only groupthink in retrospect if it doesn’t.

    As just about any soccer fan knows, leagues can often go through periods where a string of certain nationalities tend to get bought up. The EPL with Belgians, the Bundesliga with Japanese, and (perhaps until recently) Colombians in MLS. This isn’t because Belgians are inherently more talented or even necessarily easier to scout, but because the proclivities of the time favor Belgians.

    It stands to reason that this works in reverse as well. A nationality being favored can mean another is being disfavored. Not necessarily out of malice, but because competitive pressures are such that risk aversion can be more important than landing a diamond in the rough. You see this in the contemporary job market where as there are fewer jobs to go around, human resources departments are under more pressure to make the *right* hire. A Wharton MBA will be favored over the Temple MBA even if the latter is actually the more promising candidate.

    I’m not saying that stigma against Americans is rife or malicious, but that we can and should expect for these things to happen. The same competitive pressures that you would think would make managers more prone to experimentation and asymmetric scouting can actually make them less open minded to certain talent. And this doesn’t even take into account the still very real, pervading perception among many Europeans that soccer is not well understood by Americans; successful talent can be easily written off as statistical outliers from a country of 310 million people.

    Reply

    • I don’t really see “stigma” as a factor, but I mention it because it is a prevailing view among many American fans/critics. In fact, by looking at the history of MLS players in Europe you might even conclude that Americans have been over-valued by the club making the initial purchase. Look at how many multi-million fees were paid for players who ended up leaving on a free.

      You make a good point about how similar buying soccer talent is to, say, hiring in the corporate world. I know that at my company, all things being equal, it helps to have gone to a recognizable four year institution.

      It’s good to see so many Americans making an impact now in multiple leagues. The EPL is now very receptive to good American/MLS talent, as are Scandinavian leagues. The Bundesliga, Ligue 1, and to a lesser extent Serie A are now also showing some interest. At some point you’ll see MLS talent become en vogue, but we are still a handful of years from that.

      Reply

  3. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/08/20 at 6:42 AM

    There is no question that Tim Howard’s overall career in the Prem has been a great success. But his time at Man Utd was not; he played just 45 times in the 3 seasons he was at Old Trafford.

    Regarding American bias, I am not sure any clubs can afford to be. In fact, I’d say the opposite is true: clubs are crying out for an elite American football player (United have had Howard, Spector and Rossi; Arsenal had a look at Shea). Obviously the footballing talent has to be there, but the American market is too big and rich to ignore. Just look at the growth of European clubs choosing the US for pre-season training / exploiting commercial opportunities. And the 6 American owners of PL clubs know this all too well…

    Reply

    • Posted by matthewsf on 2013/08/20 at 7:48 AM

      Have to disagree on both of these George. First, fair play on Howard, but in respect to him that is a massive jump from MLS tier 3 to the EPL. Most would consider Ben Foster moderately successful and he couldn’t even get reps at Old Traffod. Conversely Howard was not given a chance to work through reps (like DeGea was for example) and then still transferred top top eight side.

      I agree clubs can’t afford to be finicky over the American nationality. There are three problems in my opinion. One, homegrown rules, two, agents and three American stereotypes at adjacent leagues.

      For HG’s, you obviously get that discount/predisposition. For agents, I think this is the big one that no one talks about. Just like Scott Boras who has a roster of players and brokers deals across his stable so to are their European agents. You look at a player like Michael Bradey who needed co-representation in Serie A to get his deal. Or you look at Prestin Zimmerman forced out of clubs in Germany becaus he couldn’t get Euro representation or you look at Jay DeMerit who by all regards should’ve got a fair-value two year contract after World Cup 2010.

      American agents are just not well established in Europe. The best is probably WMG or James Grant but even still you have Americans going to a handful of clubs where their agents has ties instead of all possibilities. Arsenal but French & English, not American through agents for example.

      And three if you’re going to flip a player to another league if he doesn’t work out, it’s much easier to flip a French player back to Ligue One or to the Eredivisie–much more than American.

      Finally a short term challenge is the idiocy of La Liga right now. Their TV revenues are not shared equally. So only Barca, Real Madrid and maybe Malaga have any real buying power. It hurt their league and it makes La Liga players very enviable in other leagues and good value. The past few seasons have seen La Liga stars jump borders for good paydays, but even better value at the clubs they’re at. Michu, Campana, Cazorla, Rossi, Van Wolfswinkel, Vlaar to sme just a few that were sold off from a league that should be keeping their players.

      So that’s a short term hit because La Liga quality is just so much better than MLS.

      Reply

      • Posted by Freegle on 2013/08/20 at 9:38 AM

        As an adjunct to you’re European homegrown talent point I think it works in the opposite direction as well, especially with transfer fees.

        As an example, Player X (for the sake of hypothetical argument, use Zusi) has more value to the MLS as a homegrown, American MLS “star” than to mid-table EPL team as just another body to play in the midfield. So an EPL team comes to MLS, interested the talent that is there,and offers a squad player level transfer fee, but is rebuffed because MLS wants the transfer fee equivalent to what they value his services at (Star). Meanwhile, EPL team is offering squad player value transfer fees because that’s what they consider him. The disagreement on how much a player is worth is rooted on the relative value to each team/league and therefore,

        MLS marketing is about individuals (“Come see Beckham and the Galaxy” “Clint’s Dempseys Sounders will be playing…”) due to the limited amount of league history. In short, (casual) fans support players more than teams. Maybe I don’t have any perspective for this because I dont live abroad, but when teams in lower Euro leagues sell their players, because their fan bases support clubs, many with deep rooted histories, they don’t have to worry about losing fans. So when Christian Benteke leaves Genk, its basically ‘next man up’ and keep on moving. But when Zusi leaves SKC, they lose a huge piece of the marketing they need to attract the average fan.

        So, unless you are leaving on a free (Holden) or almost out of contract with some leverage due to expiring contract when you have categorically stated you will be leaving (Cooper) or MLS gets blown away with a “star” transfer fee (Altidore, EJ), you’re likely staying put because you have much more value to MLS than your average top 6 Euro squad.

        (Note: I realize that this is a generalization and there are exceptions out there)

        Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/08/20 at 11:03 AM

        Agree somewhat re. Howard. And have said before that United should have loaned him out.
        But after *that* injury time error (dropped routine catch that lead to an eliminating goal) against Porto (remember Mourinho sprinting down the touchline?), his Old Trafford career was basically over – he never fully re-gained Ferguson’s trust, did he? He made a lot of errors after and was eventually replaced by Roy Carroll. And let’s face it, you know your times up when the gaffer prefers Roy effing Carroll.

        Reply

    • Posted by Berniebernier on 2013/08/20 at 10:32 AM

      It is all relative. To get 45 starts (at a decent level) for $4.2 million is good buisness not to mention they sold him at a profit. Was it the world’s best deal? No. Did they get their money’s worth and then some? Absolutely.

      Reply

    • I think there needs to be an interjection in this discussion that just because a player is not American in nationality doesn’t mean they aren’t an American product that has had success abroad. Subotic, Najar, and now even Zelalem at Arsenal came through American systems and went on to have some success abroad. I wish there was some way to track whether a player played youth soccer over here and then went abroad, while not necessarily being American themselves.

      Reply

  4. Posted by Freegle on 2013/08/20 at 9:40 AM

    * cut that “and therefore” at the end of the second block

    Reply

  5. Posted by Berniebernier on 2013/08/20 at 10:30 AM

    How is Holden not a success? He came on a free and was named Bolton POY at least once and was a boarderline EPL Best XI one season. While I don’t know the details of his contract I assume he wasn’t on mega money. I know he has had injuries but he was an incredible piece of business for Bolton.

    While not as egregious I would also move Sacha to the success category. While we don’t know the fee we can safely assume it was worth it given that he has been a starter and one of their better players for 3 years now.

    Reply

    • Both Holden and Kljestan are are *probably successes, but you need to see how it ends before fully determining. Montero is also off to a promising start.

      Reply

  6. […] Are MLS players undervalued? That’s the question asked by The Shin Guardian, who also looks at which players could be next in line for a big/small money move abroad. […]

    Reply

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