The changing identity of … Major League Soccer

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In time, Saturday night will be seen as a watershed moment in Major League Soccer, the first time the 17-year-old league was able to convince both a prominent player and his club to play ball on a big transfer from Europe. That the player happened to be the captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team makes the occasion more memorable (and Seattle’s circumstances are certainly different from almost every other team’s in Major League Soccer), but luring any player of renown who is still capable of dressing for one of England’s top teams would be celebrated as a league-wide victory.

Euro-centric fans will downplay the significance, and not without  reason, but within the scope of the league, Dempsey’s acquisition is undeniable progress. This is a milestone many fans have wanted to hit for some time. In addition to keeping the Omar Gonzalez-types from jumping once their first contracts play out, fans want to be able to compete for European-caliber talent; specifically, U.S. internationals. That the U.S international is the first to be reeled in makes this a boon.

It’s worth asking whether Major League Soccer, considered by many as more of a selling league, is now a buyer. Put another way, is the immediate future that of an importer, not an exporter? Given MLS’s structure, there’s no single answer to that. Even though they sold Fredy Montero earlier this year, Seattle’s clearly a buyer. When the LA Galaxy (seemingly inevitably) join Seattle and spend big for a third DP, they’ll affirm their status as heavy hitters. But the vast majority of MLS clubs still can’t compete with strong bids from clubs from even mid-tier European leagues. Still, between the established powers, the Pacific Northwest teams, and the two Eastern Canada clubs, more and more MLS clubs are capable of being players, not spectators.

[MORE: The changing identity of … Seattle Sounders FC]

But not everything is sunshine and roses in MLS Land. Seattle’s spending is worrisome for some in the league, particularly those concerned that the growth of a few clubs threatens to dwarf the capabilities of others. Between expanding the Designated Player rules and instituting retention funds, the league’s affluent teams have more avenues to distance themselves from the pack. The extent to which that (as opposed to Seattle’s unique circumstances) influenced the Dempsey deal is debatable, but as part of the overall landscape, some see it as cause for concern.

Then there’s fan frustration, most present in Portland, who not only are Seattle’s chief rivals but sat on top of the allocation order when Dempsey rejoined the league. Many’s readings of the rules assumed the Timbers should get the rights to the returning U.S. international, even though those rules conflicted with the Designated Player guidelines. The Claudio Reyna precedent of 2007 seemed to solve that matter (the former U.S. captain returned straight to Red Bull on a DP deal), but for those suspicious of the league’s motives, the conflict was enough to fuel ire …

Ire that was on display Saturday night at JELD-WEN Field:

Infuriated by their rival’s coup, Timbers fans may be taking an excessively literal, inflexible view of the rules, which is not to say they don’t have a point. The written rules available on MLS’s web site do conflict, so much so that the league felt the need to issue a clarification after Dempsey was signed. The explanation was clear, consistent, and may have answered many’s questions, but for those who’d already decided the Dempsey deal was shaky, there was no tearing the tin foil from their heads.

[MORE: In pictures, Clint Dempsey is unveiled in Seattle.]

If Major League Soccer really is in that adolescence we discussed in the Seattle post, this is their teenage naivete. And like all mistakes of our high school days, this is mostly innocent – something to learn from. It is, however, a small reminder that it’s time to grow up. There are responsibilities and expectations that come with adulthood, and any hint that you’re making things up as you go along will lead people to question your maturity.

But this isn’t a matter of two steps forward, one step back for MLS. The Dempsey capture is a decided leap forward, even if there’s a stubbed toe on the landing. For all the confusion people found in MLS’s rules, the league is in a notably better place today than they were two days ago. That’s almost the definition of progress.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).

De Ligt reportedly chooses Barcelona; Klopp set at CB

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Liverpool, Manchester United, and pretty much everyone but Barcelona looks set to miss out on Matthijs de Ligt.

De Ligt, 19, has paired with Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk while in the Netherlands national team set-up, but reportedly is opting to join Ajax teammate Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

In the case of Liverpool, Sky Sports says that Reds boss Jurgen Klopp thinks he doesn’t need another center back.

Injuries hit Liverpool’s center backs this season outside of Van Dijk. Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren were rated highly and combined for just over 2500 minutes, while young Joe Gomez suffered a long-term injury midway through the season.

If all are healthy, Liverpool has decent depth. Yet even Gomez doesn’t have the upside to shake a stick at De Ligt if the 19-year-old was truly interested in coming to Anfield.

I mean, “Are you interested in this 19-year-old captain of a Champions League semifinalist? He’s interested in coming there” usually doesn’t yield a firm, “No.”

As for Barcelona, it will reinforce its back line a year after allowing 36 goals. That’s pretty decent, but the Blaugranas‘ third-highest total of the last decade.

Mkhitaryan assured of safety by Azerbaijan ambassador

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The Europa League Final in Azerbaijan has not been getting a lot of positive press due to fans unwillingness to travel for the event and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s fears of stepping foot in the country.

That’s because Mkhitaryan is the captain of Armenia’s national team, and that nation’s long dispute with Azerbaijan.

[ MORE: Brighton hires new boss ]

Arsenal, of course, plays Chelsea in the May 29 final, and Mkhitaryan already missed an earlier UEL match against Azerbaijan powers Qarabag. He’s played plenty for the Gunners this season apart from a broken foot, and his absence would not be welcome news for this London Derby of a European Final.

Azerbaijan’s UK ambassador Tahir Taghizadeh has guaranteed safety for Mkhitaryan, and said he’d be happy to personally offer assurances to the Armenian. On the other hand, this doesn’t sound like the most positive messaging, via Sky Sports:

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you’re a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku you are safe there, if you want to play the issue then that’s a different story. What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything what needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

By using the phrase “play the issue,” it does launch the discussion firmly into political waters. One thing’s for sure: The issue may be debatable, but whether a player feels safe deserves to be his call and his call alone.