Friday, August 29, 2008

Junior League

Ives has a remarkable story up on his web-site about the Red Bulls' pursuit of talent from the USL to supplement their surging team. Of initial interest is that the Red Bulls are considering trying to add Mathew Mbuta to the team (why isn't DC United considering Mbuta?), although Mbuta has previously indicated that he is not interested in playing for any other club in the United States and has his eyes set on Europe.

Of more importance, however, is Ives' characterization of the MLS's reaction to the Red Bulls' attempt to acquire Macoumba Kandji from USL1's Atlanta Silverbacks. Per Ives (although the story has been denied by MLS and Red Bulls sources), MLS has vetoed New York's move to obtain Kandji because a $200,000 transfer fee paid to the Silverbacks would create a bad precedent for future transactions between MLS clubs and USL teams.

It is possible that this story is not empirically accurate. Regardless, most U.S. soccer fans who read it will believe it because few have faith that the MLS' leadership is capable of acting in the best interests of the league and its fans.

Any move to try and control the market for player acquisition from lower U.S. club teams -- beyond MLS' already existing complicated and absurd regulations -- would be both stupid and, ultimately, horrendously ineffective. What lesson are USL teams and players supposed to draw from this inanity? That USL teams must hold out for European and Asian clubs to come in and make pitches for their best talent in order to obtain fair market value for such players? That the MLS perceives the USL as such a threat that it must resort to draconian interventions to prevent USL squads from improving their balance sheets?

The possibility of futbol talent being developed at multiple levels in the United States is not just good for fans, it is good for Major League Soccer, as the more meaningful opportunities for players to hone their skills in this country means that the talent pool from which players are drawn is substantially expanded. Moreover, anyone paying any attention to international soccer knows that there is a remarkably fluid market in contractual rights to soccer players. Entities all over the world are focused on discovering any place where arbitrage is possible -- European teams see such opportunities in Africa; DC United in South America -- and club teams outside of the United States will quickly pick up on the possibilities presented by the USL, punishing the MLS for its petty despotism.

The reason any effort by the MLS to prevent USL teams from getting market value for people on their rosters is so incredibly offensive is not simply that such efforts are intellectually (and commercially) indefensible, it is that any such efforts are so obviously and inexplicably incompetent and inept. There is no way that the MLS can force -- on a regular, routine, and continued basis -- the USL to provide it with talent at less than going rates for a player's skill. Clubs outside of the U.S. will see the arbitrage opportunities and they will take advantage of it (perhaps not today, tomorrow, or next week, but soon, very soon), further fracturing the relationship between the USL and MLS. In the interim, the MLS will be denying itself a pool of US-oriented, skilled players (for whom MLS clubs have a competitive advantage in scouting vis-a-vis clubs outside the United States), thereby making the league weaker in terms of the caliber of play and the level of competition on the pitch.

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