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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.