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Should MLS be worried about China’s big-spending?

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There may be a few people at Major League Soccer’s headquarters looking rather nervously over their shoulders. You can’t blame them.

Something big is going on in China. Really big.

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Ahead of the 2016 Chinese Super League (CSL) season plenty of teams in China’s top-flight have been spending money like it’s going out of fashion in recent weeks as star names have flocked to China.

With the transfer window in China s still open for another 10 days ahead of the start of the season on March 4, there could be even more big-money moves to come.

[ MORE: Teixeira heads to China ]

Not only has the huge sums spent on individual players been eye-catching, but the fact that most of these players are in their prime proves the CSL is doing something MLS has been trying to do — and having mixed results with — for years. Getting players to leave established leagues in their prime. Sebastian Giovinco is the best example of this MLS has and after that, there’s not too many others to choose from.

In a 10-day spell this month the CSL transfer fee record was broken three times. First Ramires left Chelsea for Jiangsu Suning for $30 million, then Jackson Martinez left Atletico Madrid for Guangzhou Evergrande for a fee of $45 million and then came Jiangsu Suning’s capture of Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk for $56 million. All of these players are on astronomical wages and it’s tough to question their motives about leaving some of the biggest teams and competitions in the world for the riches China offers.

The sheer fact that clubs are forking out these kind of transfer fees — MLS historically doesn’t like to pay big fees for incoming foreign talent — shows you the wealth they possess, with many owned by state run companies. Of course there are other issues around China as a country and the pollution levels present, but at the end of the day these players are heading to the CSL to do one thing: get money. At least right now, and it shows no signs of stopping.

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Other impressive names to join the CSL include Demba Ba, Gervinho, Fredy Guarin, Paulinho and Asamoah Gyan, plus former Seattle Sounders forward Fredy Montero has also arrived. With each CSL team allowed four overseas players on their roster, plus one player from another Asian Football Confederation nation, there is some limit to their spending which keeps it from spiraling out of control and it is not unlike the Designated Player rule in MLS

The biggest question you and I have is: will this model be sustainable?

Well, let’s wait and see but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that the majority of people who pump their money into owning and running a soccer team never actually make money. That’s the way it works all over the globe and China is no different. The crowds have been steadily on the rise among the CSL’s 16 teams with attendance figures for the 2015 season up by 16.8 percent from the previous year and the average gate was 22,193.

Chelsea midfielder Ramires challenges Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo (7) during the first half of the International Champions Cup final soccer game, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Given all of the positives and hubbub around the CSL, you have to remember that the long-term infrastructure of clubs is still not there. MLS is way more advanced in that respect, even though it’s average attendance for 2015 was slightly lower at 21,574. With academy teams producing more and more North American talent, MLS has put the building blocks in place to be a sustainable league capable of producing its own players while also improving the off-field product which Soccer Specific Stadiums across the league are an example of. There is still plenty of work to do in MLS, but over two decades the respect levels for it have grown steadily.

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However, due to the huge splash the CSL is making with these monster signings, it’s evident that China’s clubs want to catch up fast to MLS and try to overtake other emerging domestic leagues outside of the Europa and South America. For instance, following Corinthians winning the Brazilian title they sold four of their players in one week. All four went to China and all were paid salaries which made their livings in Brazil look paltry. It’s not just the players either as Sven-Goran Eriksson and Luiz Felipe Scolari manage two of the top teams in Shanghai SIPG and Guanghzou Evergrande respectively. The latter has won the title five times in a row and also won the AFC Champions League in 2013 and 2015.

The CSL is only 11 years old but with President Xi Jinping putting a huge emphasis on soccer with 20,000 schools enrolled in a mandatory program to have students play the game, plus recently he visited Manchester City on a trip to the UK — weeks later City announced they’d sold a 13 percent stake in the club for $400 million to state-owned companies in China — and the Premier League side is now exploring many opportunities to expand their brand in China. It seems like there’s a huge push for the sport to become mainstream. With many top class teams traveling to China over the past few years to play in preseason tournaments, expect that to continue and not far from now the CSL will go head-to-head with MLS for players heading towards the end of their career.

I’m talking about Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi. If those guys ever want to move abroad, would China or North America be a better option?

We know the kind of money on offer in the CSL is incredible. And it is the same in MLS for the DPs, but even those levels have dropped off in recent years following the departure of David Beckham and Thierry Henry. The proof will be in the pudding in years to come as the CSL continue to sell its TV rights for huge sums of money — the TV deal for the next five years is at $1.18 billion, over 30 times larger than the last deal — and the level of play continues to rise with more players arriving in their prime.

CHINA OUT  BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 20: Ultra supporters of the Beijing Guoan FC wave flags as police stand guard during their Chinese Super League match against Tianjin FC on June 20, 2015 in Beijing, China. There are growing legions of ardent supporters and fans of China's football clubs. The government is also trying to foster a football culture in the country by mandating football programs in 20,000 Chinese schools in a recent plan devised by President Xi Jinping. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

In the past the Middle East offered huge sums for a players at the end of their careers — remember images of Gabriel Batistuta and the De Boer brothers playing in Qatar’s Stars League about a decade ago? — and many would claim MLS have done the same for most of the last decade in attempts to become more popular and grow their brand. That has now become a part of MLS’ model but not the main part. The CSL has taken a huge step forward in recent weeks to becoming the overseas league players in Europe will want to join purely from a financial standpoint. Even if many would prefer to live in the U.S. and Canada to see out their playing days, going to China to play in the emerging and mega-wealthy top-flight is becoming hugely attractive.

That in itself is perhaps the biggest reason why MLS should be worried. It’s ability to attract star names to fill stadiums could be impacted in the future as the CSL’s dramatic rise continues.

It’s another Zlatan day, as Galaxy star rips Vela, talks Area 51

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic took a shot at his rivals and his league in one fell swoop.

Perhaps Major League Soccer’s hit is down to proximity and not intent, but the LA Galaxy star certainly didn’t disguise his feelings when asked whether LAFC star Carlos Vela is the best player in the league.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Vela, 30, has lit MLS on fire to the tune of 19 goals and eight assists in 19 matches, driving the second-year squad to the top of the Western Conference.

Zlatan and the Galaxy’s seasons have trailed behind, relatively speaking. The third-place Galaxy are 12 points behind LAFC, with Ibrahimovic contributing 13 goals and three assists in three fewer games.

“29, he’s playing in MLS and he’s in his prime. When I was 29, where was I?”

Herculez Gomez replies that Ibrahimovic was in Europe (Vela turned 30 in March. At 29, Ibrahimovic scored 21 goals in 41 appearances for AC Milan, on loan from Barcelona. At 30, he scored 35 in 44 for Milan).

“Big difference, exactly.”

Vela, for what it’s worth, spent 2005-17 in Europe. Anyway, here is the exchange.

But wait, there’s more.

Zlatan was also quizzed on Area 51 while in a scrum. For those who may not know, Area 51 is a classified United States military facility in Nevada which has long been speculated as the home of extraterrestrial testing and scientific experimentation.

He doesn’t need to worry about going there, because he has his own Area 51 and there is only one Zlatan.

Who will make Ballon d’Or final three?

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When Luka Modric won the Ballon d’Or last summer, marking the first victor neither named Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo since 2007, it threatened to signal a new era for the trophy in more ways than one.

Ronaldo didn’t win the honors, finishing second, but Messi was inexplicably left off the final ballot altogether.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

Could this be the year that neither makes the top three? Probably not, but it could be the first time Ronaldo fails to make the list since Barca swept the honors Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi in 2010.

So while most of us are not thinking of the award right now, Ronaldo has it on his brain. It’s no surprise that Marca, known for its backing of Real Madrid royalty, has thrown his name in the mix as a “favorite” given his scudetto with Juventus. That it mentions his performance in the UEFA Nations League is a little goofy — it was a two-match summer — but such is life.

Ronaldo and Messi are deadlocked on five Ballons d’Or, the most ever, and Messi’s year was superior to his longtime rival. Both won their leagues and Messi did not claim domestic honors at the Copa America — in fact he was not his phenomenal self — but Messi scored 12 goals in 10 Champions League appearances before Liverpool stunned Barcelona prior to the final (Ronaldo’s Juve lost to Ajax).

Marca proffers this “I don’t care but obviously I very much care” from CR7:

“I don’t live with an obsession about awards,” Ronaldo explained. “My numbers don’t lie, this year I’ve won three titles and I’ve been good in the Nations League. What else can I do?”

Ronaldo, it should be noted, was still incredible last season. He scored all three goals as Juventus erased a 2-0 first leg deficit in the UCL Round of 16 versus old rivals Atletico Madrid, then scored in both legs of the side’s exit via Ajax. And he likely would’ve won the top scorer’s prize in Italy had he not missed six matches through injury and rest.

Messi again breached the half-century mark in goals, scoring 51 times in all competitions for Barcelona. He chipped in 22 assists and also missed six matches between the UCL and La Liga.

Are there three players who could surpass both to make a new final three?

It would be stunning if Liverpool and Netherlands center back Virgil Van Dijk was kept off the top three, while Sadio Mane may have a Champions League crown and Africa Cup of Nations victory. And you can follow the Luka Modric logic to a land where treble- and Nations League-winning Bernardo Silva is in the discussion (Raheem Sterling was also great).

Kylian Mbappe had probably the best-looking season on Earth, scoring 39 times with 17 assists in 43 matches and navigating the attention that came with Neymar’s long-term absence by shouldering the burden to great success. We made the argument that his 19 goals and six assists in 23 Neymar-free matches is one of the prime reasons he’s be worth almost any transfer fee.

Also remember that the odds of the captains of international teams having enough ballots without Ronaldo and/or Messi named is very difficult to imagine.

Still, Messi, Mbappe, and Van Dijk seems like the final three to us. What do you think?

LIVE — UEL second legs will determine possible Wolves opponents

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Wolverhampton Wanderers will find out its first Europa League opponent on Friday, and the field will be winnowed with a bevy of second qualifying round second legs on Thursday.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

Malmo, Aberdeen, Kilmarnock, Rangers, Legia Warsaw, and Hajduk Split are the biggest names in play on Thursday, with only the Polish side failing to hold an advantage after the first leg.

American forward Romain Gall is in the mix for Malmo, though he’s been an unused sub of late for the Swedish powers. That could change today, with Malmo in Northern Ireland with a 7-0 advantage over Ballymena United.

You can follow the dozens of ties by clicking the link above.

Klopp: Liverpool has all answers it needs even without transfers

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Claiming Liverpool has “solutions for all the situations” that could arise over the course of a season, manager Jurgen Klopp insists that the UEFA Champions League winners need not buy anyone this transfer window.

Of course, Klopp could still spend and admits that he has at least one position he’d like to strengthen by the end of the window.

[ MORE: De Ligt joins Juve ]

He also continues to play down the idea that Liverpool will spend big annually, naming Manchester City as one of four sides which can continue down that path on the day Juventus sealed the addition of reported Reds target Matthijs de Ligt.

From The Liverpool Echo:

“People talk about it like, ‘Now another £300m or £200m’. There are maybe only two clubs in the world – it looks in the moment like Barcelona and [Real] Madrid can do the same – City and PSG that can do it every year. I’m happy with the team, we are really happy.”

Klopp has claimed that injuries and youth progression make Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rhian Brewster transfer-like additions to the squad. Perhaps he’s been told that there’s not a lot in the budget this summer.

However, he’s also said that Liverpool has to “splash the cash” to compete with its rivals, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if this was all more Cheshire Cat talk ahead of a purchase.