Chelsea, Manchester City’s new means of dealing with Financial Fair Play

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Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber claims his league is losing between $75-$100 million a year, a claim more likely a pre-collective bargaining stance than anything reflecting the league’s true financial health. The claim does, however, highlight the state of MLS’s maturation. With signings like Clint Dempsey’s and Michael Bradley’s, and with investments from clubs and the league helping the teams move beyond their first generation venues, it’s easy to slant the books to make the league seem more impoverished than it actually is. Put those big, long-term commitments on the books now, and leave the league to look thriving once a new collective bargaining agreement is signed.

They’re the same type of machinations that could also help the league’s new partner deal with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. Manchester City, who this week also acquired Melbourne Heart in Australia, have become one of Europe’s big spenders since Abu Dhabi United took over the team in 2008. They’ve paid a premium to bring the likes of Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Fernandinho (among others) to greater Manchester. In the process, they’ve served as one of the poster boys in UEFA president Michel Platini’s quest to get big clubs’ spending in line with their incomes.

Designated Players and Manchester City’s new Marquee contract havens

That’s where MLS (and the A-League, two leagues with permeable salary caps) come in. With no FFP-esque oversight in CONCACAF or its Asian counterpart, the AFC, those highly speculated Gareth Barry-esque loans become a way to get inefficient contracts off the books, giving City some extra room beneath UEFA’s spending ceilings. If City can send Barry’s salary ($10.37 million) and, say, Javi Garcia’s ($7.26 million) to NYCFC while claiming their child club will cover the wages, the parent team all of a sudden has a significant amount of breathing room on their books. While Abu Dhabi United adds money directly to NYCFC’s coffers, City gets some FFP flexibility they wouldn’t get if their owners were merely writing checks to the club.

Under FFP, UEFA has the power to investigate these shady dealings. The problem is, on the books, this won’t look shady. City will loan the players to NYCFC and have their wages covered by their partner. NYCFC will simply pay for them and either not have to explain that Abu Dhabi United’s simply shifting money from one pile to another or confess that’s what’s happening while asking ‘why shouldn’t we be able to do this?’

Of course, that’s all speculation. NYCFC is still a year away from taking the field. Who knows what their team will look like? Yet, if Manchester City so choose, they can fill their new teams’ three Designated Player spots with City’s less useful contracts. They can do the same at Heart with the A-League’s Marquee Player rule (one per team). With whispers around MLS saying City has already secured promises for more lenient spending rules (perhaps more Designated Players), it’s not difficult to imagine the Australian federation  making similar guarantees to lure a high-profile owner.

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On loan at Everton this season, midfielder Gareth Barry has been linked with a move to NYCFC for 2015 – the new franchise’s debut season in Major League Soccer. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the grand scheme of things, it could be seen as nitpicking at the margins. On the other hand, if City are able to take four contracts that aren’t significantly contributing to their team, move them abroad, and get room within FFP to replace them, those could be the type of margins that make a difference at the highest levels. Given the gap between Arsenal and City at the top of the Premier League, or the gap in quality between Barcelona and City in their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 matchup, every little bit could help.

When UEFA implemented FFP, it’s unlikely they anticipated these kinds of maneuvers. As Platini spoke against the continued spending of his confederation’s biggest clubs, he never spoke about the possibility of “player havens” popping up across the globe. It’s unlikely that’s Manchester City’s sole intent (the growth possibilities alone in MLS and the A-League justify the expenditures), but the havens are still a nice coincidence. How many of Europe’s top teams would pay a one-time $100 million fee to have a permanent FFP work around?

Chelsea: Udinese, on a totally different level

In a completely different way, one City’s Premier League competitors appear to be developing a different work around, one that was evident when they sold Kevin de Bruyne to Wolfsburg. Although Chelsea never significantly used their young Belgian attackers (loaning him out for 1.5 of his two years at Stamford Bridge), they were able to turn a nice profit on the former Genk star. Having become the Wolves’ record signing earlier this month, the near-$15 million Chelsea netted in transfer fees will go toward their FFP bottom line. Though wages and other expenses take a bite into that profit, the Blues still made big money off their de Bruyne flip.

For purchases like Mohamed Salah, Chelsea’s unlikely to experience that kind of profit. And with deals like Fernando Torres’s, Gary Cahill’s, Willian’s and Eden Hazard’s, they’ll surely lose money, just as most teams do when they pay their key players. But among the 26 players Chelsea have on loan — including Vitesse’s Christian Atsu, Middlesbrough’s Kenneth Omeruo, and Valencia’s Oriol Romeu — the Blues will have a few more de Bruynes. For every Thibaut Courtois or Romelu Lukaku that eventually breaks into Jose Mourinho’s first team, there may be two eight-figure flips that pad Chelsea’s FFP margins.

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Purchased from FC Porto this summer, Ghanaian international Christian Atsu is one of five Chelsea players at Vitesse in the Dutch Eredivisie.

It’s a model that Serie A club Udinese is built on, even if the Giampaolo Pozzo’s team is operating on a much lower level. With 33 players on loan between the Serie A, Granada (Spain) and Watford (England), the Genoa-based club have set up an infrastructure that allows the Bianconeri to scoop up and house prospects across South America and Europe, hoping to find another Alexi Sanchez. Though the Zebras rarely find a player that allows them to collect over $35 million (as the Chilean did from Barcelona in 2011), smaller sales make the model work, with players waiting to be sold making up the squads of Pozzo’s expanding number of clubs.

Instead of paying $1 or $2 million on true prospects, Chelsea’s able to spend much more on more established talents. And while those players’ values mature — while they’re out on loan across Europe — most of the wage burden is being picked up by other clubs, leaving only the balance and an amortized transfer fee on the Blues’ FFP bottom line. Instead of selling on the Sanchezes of the world, Chelsea keeps the stars they develop, with the rest of their sales addressing their financial end.

That end isn’t profitability. It’s Financial Fair Play – rules implemented to try to bring clubs’ spending in line with income. In the case of Chelsea and Manchester City, however, new approaches are (or will) allow them to play beyond FFP’s pure intent. For Chelsea, that means becoming a broker for emerging talent, helping them to either the Premier League or some nice wages while they await their next permanent home. For City, that means setting up franchises across the world, with the rules of each region potentially helping the Citizens transcend UEFA’s limits.

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.

Netherlands manager Danny Blind fired after Bulgaria loss

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The Netherlands are in real trouble, and the manager has paid the price.

The Dutch national team has parted ways with Danny Blind the day after a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria left the Dutch fourth in their World Cup qualification group halfway through.

The move garnering all the headlines from Saturday’s loss was Blind’s decision to start 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt. The Ajax youth product, who has just two Eredivisie starts to his credit, made two crucial errors and yanked at halftime, but the damage had been done. Spas Delev scored twice in the opening 20 minutes for Bulgaria, and that was all the home side needed as the Dutch offered little in front of goal.

Blind was also criticized for not getting Memphis Depay on the field as they chased the game. The Netherlands held 74% possession, but could only manage 3 shots on target. Depay has been in good form since his January move to Lyon, with five goals in his 10 Ligue 1 appearances.

This decision was something Blind saw coming. He told national broadcaster NOS immediately after the Bulgaria loss, “I blame myself. It can’t go on like this. Things have to change.”

“I need to think about [my future]. I do not throw the towel in here. I’m incredibly disappointed, especially since I had a good feeling about this match. It makes sense that I put myself in front of the mirror.”

However, the problems for the Dutch go far deeper than Danny Blind. They missed out on Euro 2016 largely thanks to the failed 2nd tenure for Guus Hiddink. His assistant Blind took over, but the results have been equally as poor. The Netherlands sit fourth in UEFA World Cup qualification Group A, with losses to Bulgaria and France plus a draw with Sweden. It’s not over for them though, as they sit three points back of a second place spot with five matches to go, and three of those five at home.

With the Netherlands still yet to play their friendly against Italy this coming week, former goalkeeper Fred Grim takes over on an interim basis. Grim collected 101 caps for the Netherlands, and has served as the Netherlands U-21 manager for the last two years. Before that, he took charge of his first full managerial job as head man of Dutch 2nd-tier club Almere City.

Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery, scores in England win

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Jermain Defoe’s friendship with terminally-ill Bradley Lowery has been special to watch unfold, and the Sunderland striker brought his little buddy to Wembley today.

Then he notched a match-winner.

Lowery walked Defoe out onto the field in a replica England kit before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, and then Defoe scored his 20th goal for country.

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It was his first since 2013, the last year Defoe was called up for the Three Lions.

Here’s the goal, which was followed by a second-half Jamie Vardy tally as England stayed atop Group F with a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

Two Russian soccer fans stabbed in Serbia

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Two Russian fans have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed following a friendly soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said Sunday police were looking for the knife-wielding perpetrators who attacked a group of Lokomotiv fans in downtown Belgrade late Saturday.

Serbian media reports said the Russian fans were attacked by supporters of Red Star’s rival Partizan Belgrade.

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The match, which Red Star won 2-1, was meant to promote Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

Stefanovic says “nobody should think they could hurt the Serbian-Russian friendship” with such attacks.

Serbia has seen a surge of fan violence inside and outside stadiums. In 2009, a French football fan was fatally beaten in Belgrade.