Sport

Alphonso Davies’ Bayern Munich move addresses MLS’s trade deficit

You can learn a lot about a soccer league from its transfer spending.

According to FIFA, the top six soccer associations by net transfer spending in 2017 were England, Germany, China, France, Italy and the United States. Five of those make perfect sense.

The Premier League, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Serie A are four of the top five leagues in the world, where clubs regularly pay huge sums to acquire the best players. China’s Super League recently tried to spend its way — some say recklessly — into becoming a global player. And then there is MLS.

Despite its stated ambitions, MLS is not considered one of the best leagues in the world. For years it pursued an attention-grabbing, star-centered strategy similar to China’s. U.S. teams have a trade deficit worthy of a White House tweet storm, buying $69 million (U.S.) worth of players last year while selling just $2.4 million.

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Groomed in the Whitecaps’ academy and the pride of a recent MLS focus on so-called homegrown players, Davies was poised to emerge as the league’s brightest young star until last week, when Vancouver and the league announced that he would join the German powerhouse Bayern Munich in January, in the most lucrative player sale in MLS history.

Bayern paid the Whitecaps $13.5 million for Davies’ rights, an amount that could rise to $22 million if he meets certain performance criteria in Germany. In his first game after the deal was announced, Davies had two goals and two assists, at least temporarily quieting those who do not believe a 17-year-old MLS player can hack it in the Bundesliga.

Davies said in an interview Monday that consistent minutes in the MLS at a young age had been vital to his development, even as he acknowledged “everyone’s fear of going to the big club and not making it.”

European soccer has had plenty of experience with American flame-outs. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey may have excelled abroad, but Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan proved less successful.

For now, Davies, like most young players making such a move, is focusing on the upside. “If you go there at a young age,” he said, “you can develop way more than if you go there already in your prime.”

Davies’ transfer fee is the highest ever paid for a MLS player, surpassing — even at its low end — the reported $10 million that the Spanish club Villarreal paid for striker Jozy Altidore, who now plays for Toronto FC. That was a decade ago.

The endurance of that milestone has been something of an indictment of MLS player development, of the league’s inability to produce players who bigger clubs in bigger leagues wanted to buy.

As worldwide transfer spending more than doubled in just the past five years, it had seemed strange that, even by accident, MLS had not developed and sold a player who some club, somewhere would have valued more than Villarreal did Altidore. After all, MLS is based in a diverse wealthy country of 330 million people.

MLS began requiring its teams to establish academies in 2006, to better train young players. Each team now oversees hundreds of youth players, sometimes down to 7-year-olds, and most have dedicated training facilities and residency programs.

MLS has supported these academies with initiatives like paying to send youth coaches to learn at France’s famed Clairefontaine training centre. It is the maturing of this system that will hopefully produce more players like Davies.

Bob Lenarduzzi, president of the Whitecaps, said the team tried to mimic clubs like Ajax and Lyon, who are successful because of the players they develop, not the players they buy. It quickly became clear that Davies would not be a Whitecap for life.

“With someone like him it is just the natural evolution,” Lenarduzzi said.

Selling homegrown stars could completely change the economics for MLS, as there aren’t many opportunities for immediate revenue growth.

The league’s national television deal, which runs through 2022, pays each team an average of just $4 million annually, and most teams receive even less for their local television rights. Only so many fans can be packed into a stadium. Ticket prices rise only incrementally, even in a city like Atlanta, where demand is high.

On the other hand, the average MLS academy costs about $3 million to operate annually. The Davies transfer can cover years of developing more players just like him. Also, the $13.5 million the Whitecaps received for Davies is $5 million more than their total team salary for the season. It is more than the total season salary of all but four teams.

For MLS, producing players in the fashion of Portugal’s Primeira Liga, the Netherlands’ Eredivisie, or the Brazilian or Argentine leagues would be a major achievement.

There is one major stumbling block. Generally, when players signs their first professional contract or are transferred abroad, the club or clubs that trained them must be compensated by the signing club. Besides paying Vancouver for Davies, Bayern Munich will also pay a much smaller fee to the Edmonton Strikers, where Davies played before Vancouver.

While this is how things work for clubs in Canada and the rest of the world, it is not how things work in the United States. The U.S. Soccer Federation does not enforce transfer compensation or solidarity payments. The reason is complicated and involves a two-decade-old lawsuit and child labour laws, but the upshot is that U.S. clubs do not receive compensation simply for training a young player. They must sign them to their first professional contract.

MLS supports bringing the United States in line with the rest of the world, according to commissioner Don Garber.

“MLS is a winner in the solidarity payment world, and I have no objections to it,” he told reporters Monday.