Friday, June 21, 2024
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How MLS roster construction is evolving as Messi shines in the spotlight

Forty-five minutes after the final whistle sounded on Inter Miami’s 2-0 victory over Real Salt Lake in the 2024 Major League Soccer regular season opener, journalists packed into a white tent in the loading dock of Chase Stadium for media availability with players.

On one end of the tent, cameras focused in on Inter Miami’s Diego Gómez, a 20-year-old Paraguayan international only a couple weeks removed from being named the most valuable player in CONMEBOL’s Olympic qualifying tournament, where MLS had 15 players competing for South American sides. On the other end, reporters lifted their recorders toward Diego Luna, Real Salt Lake’s 20-year-old midfielder, who was a month removed from his debut with the U.S. men’s national team.

Gómez, who scored Inter Miami’s second goal of the night, was signed on a $3 million transfer last summer via MLS’ under-22 initiative, a three-year-old rule designed to incentivize MLS teams to spend on young international players who can be developed, produce in MLS and eventually be sold on for profit. Luna, a Sunnyvale, California native, is what MLS calls a “homegrown player,” meaning he was developed through domestic youth academies before eventually being signed to the first team.

On a night when soccer fans might have tuned in to see Lionel Messi setting up both Inter Miami goals or Luis Suárez assisting one in his MLS debut, league executives hoped those eyes would also drift toward players and stories like Gómez and Luna.

Inter Miami’s star-laden team featuring a quartet of former Barcelona players in the final years of their careers — Messi, Suarez, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets — is the exception to the rule in today’s MLS. As of Feb. 22, MLS had signed 80 players in the primary transfer window. Of those, 85 percent were aged 28 or younger and 53 percent were 24 or younger. Just four were over the age of 33. The average age was 24.36.

Across the league, teams have focused most of their discretionary spending — MLS has a restrictive salary cap, but allows owners to spend as much as they want on three “designated players,” a rule that went into effect in 2007 when David Beckham signed with the LA Galaxy — on players at or just before their prime. Over the last three years, however, the league’s U-22 Initiative has spurred tens of millions of dollars in spending on higher-risk, but potentially high-reward young players. MLS also continues to pour money into youth development, both through its youth academies and a lower-division league called MLS Next Pro, which it hopes will serve as a development ground for domestic talent.

Both are longer-term bets at a time when MLS also needs short-term results.

The strategy is two-fold. MLS wants to become a more active player in the global transfer market, not just as a buyer, but as a seller, opening up a potential revenue stream for MLS owners that is a key part of the business plan for most soccer first-division clubs around the world. The league also hopes that in doing so, they’ll finally shed the outdated “retirement league” moniker and increase the quality of play by becoming a destination for top young talent, especially from the western hemisphere.

“There is an awareness and recognition and respect for our league around the world because, not only (Messi) is here, but because of everything that we’ve done to grow the league,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told a group of reporters on Wednesday night. “That’s going to pay off with players that are senior international players thinking about MLS, but also for young kids that might be playing in the grassroots of America or playing somewhere in the rest of the world and paying attention to us.

“This is a global game, we want to be a global league and that’s about building awareness and recognition on and off the field around the world.”

David Beckham waves to fans after his final match with the Galaxy in 2012. (Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Almost 17 years ago, Beckham stepped on to a field in an LA Galaxy jersey, a moment that would change the course of MLS history and set the path for Messi to debut for Beckham’s own MLS team, Inter Miami, last summer.

Beckham’s decision to join the Galaxy would set the franchise’s identity for the next decade and a half. During Beckham’s five years in MLS, the Galaxy became the most globally-recognizable MLS brand and the club leveraged that notoriety, and the LA market, to lure more internationally known stars in the coming years, to varying degrees of success: Zlatan Ibrahimovic; Steven Gerrard; the Dos Santos brothers, Gio and Jonathan; Douglas Costa; and Nigel de Jong, among them.

Yet, in the same season in which Inter Miami has built a superstar-filled roster — the Galaxy model on steroids — the once-marquee LA franchise has pivoted its strategy. That’s not to say the Galaxy isn’t still spending at the highest levels in the league; they have dropped north of $20 million on transfer fees in this winter window. But instead of aiming for big names, those millions have been spent on young and in-their-prime players, specifically 23-year-old Brazilian winger Gabriel Pec, one of the top young players in Brazil’s first division, and 26-year-old Ghaniain winger Joseph Paintsil, who scored 22 goals with 17 assists in his last 58 games with Genk of Belgium’s first division.

“What really resonates with our fans is winning and attractive football,” said LA Galaxy sporting director Will Kuntz. “I don’t necessarily think they care who somebody is, as long as they help us win games and trophies.”

The Galaxy is not forging a new path in MLS with their roster-building strategy, but rather playing catch-up to a league that has mostly turned in a different direction over the last seven years. The watershed was in 2017 when Atlanta United set attendance records behind a young, exciting team led by two relatively-unknown designated players who would become two of the most important stars in league history.

The success of a young Paraguayan winger, Miguel Almirón, and Venezuelan forward, Josef Martinez, ushered in an era when league and team executives recognized that MLS could develop and nurture rising stars — and that those players could be embraced just as much, or more, than more established names coming to the U.S. on their final contracts. Almirón’s reported $27 million sale to Premier League side Newcastle was evidence that developing stars had other benefits, too.

“That, to me, was a clear signal that you could do it a different way,” Kuntz said.

Inter Miami gets the headlines because they have Messi, Suarez, Busquets and Alba, and rightfully so. Superstars sell, and MLS will likely always be a home for big names like these. They are also not the only older stars in MLS this year. Like any league, MLS has veteran players in prominent roles. Mexican midfielder Hector Herrera, 33, last year led the Houston Dynamo to their first trophy since 2018. LAFC signed French World Cup-winning goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, 37, to a one-year contract, continuing its own trend of luring big names like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini on manageable contracts to complement its younger stars, a formula that led to an MLS Cup victory in 2022 and runner-up finish in 2023.



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Still, most teams have focused their models around players at or entering their prime, especially when spending big money.

Atlanta paired star forward Giorgos Giakoumakis, 29, with young Argentine World Cup winner Thiago Almada, 22. The Chicago Fire this winter spent a record $12 million transfer fee on 27-year-old Belgian forward Hugo Cuypers. FC Dallas spent nearly $10 million on 25-year-old forward Petar Musa. Columbus won MLS Cup last year with a team featuring two in-their-prime DPs acquired from abroad: forward Cucho Hernandez, 24, and winger Diego Rossi, 25.

Eleven players were acquired as designated players in this year’s primary window, with an average age of 26.5. Four teams made record signings in terms of transfer fees spent.

“That’s an obvious evolution of the growth of the league because as the quality of the league continues to increase, you are chasing and pursuing better and better players,” said MLS executive Todd Durbin, who oversees the player department, which includes MLS roster and budget guidelines.

Diego Gomez with Messi after Miami’s win over Real Salt Lake. (Photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)

As much of the league’s DP spending focuses on that prime age, MLS has seen the average age of its rosters drop. That’s no accident.

Most club sporting directors believe loosening restrictions and giving teams more autonomy and more money to spend up and down the roster is the best and fastest way to improve the quality of the league. Much to their frustration, the league’s central headquarters has long utilized its rulebook to dictate not just how much teams spend, but how they spend it.

In recent years, MLS has given significant incentives for teams to target younger players — most notably through the introduction of the U-22 Initiative.

Restrictions were put into place on designated player spots to push teams to maximize the U-22 dictate. If teams used all three of their designated player spots on players over the age of 23 or who make more than a certain maximum salary, they would be able to sign just one U-22 initiative player. If they used that third designated player spot to sign a player aged 23 or younger, or one that cost less money, they could sign three U-22 players.

The overall salary cap remains excruciatingly low — $5.47 million in 2024 — so maximizing the discretionary funds that teams can spend outside of that soft cap is critical, as is utilizing the budget-friendly contracts like U-22 spots and young designated players, which hit the cap at either $150,000 or $200,000 depending on age, and homegrown contracts, which don’t hit the cap at all.

Teams therefore can’t afford not to employ a model that allows them to use all three U-22 spots, if possible. Just four of 29 teams are using all three DP spots in a way that allows for just one U-22 player: Nashville SC, New England Revolution, Orlando City and FC Cincinnati.

Younger players typically come with higher risk; they are unproven and usually need more time to develop and grow into bigger roles. But the league isn’t focused just on the immediate on-field results.

“When we launched the U-22 Initiative, it had two objectives in mind,” Durbin said in a conference call with reporters last week. “First and foremost, it was to improve the quality of the league, to go out and participate in a more active way with high quality young players from across the globe to make the MLS teams themselves better. But it was also an effort to get us more and more active in the global transfer market.”

Some clubs have acted quicker than others. Unsurprisingly, with the backing of City Football Group, NYCFC was among the first to go 10-toes down into the new frontier. NYCFC hit big on a few U-22 signings, including winger Gabi Pereira, who was transferred to Al-Rayyan in Qatar for a $10 million fee. Over the last two windows, they replenished their U-22 ranks by splashing cash on Argentine youth international winger Julian Fernandez ($5 million), Argentine winger Agustin Ojeda (up to $7 million) and Serbian youth international forward Jovan Mijatovic ($8.6 million).

Even Miami, which brought in Messi and Co. last summer, managed the cap in a way to maximize the U-22 slots and spent more than $15 million on highly-rated South American talents Tomás Avilés, Gómez and Facundo Farías. When Farías tore his ACL in the preseason opener, Miami sprung into action to use a season-ending injury replacement exemption and add another U-22 signing. They have signed Argentine youth international Federico Redondo now, as well.



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It’s still early in the analysis of a new roster rule implemented with a long-term view, but the results have been a mixed bag.

The prime example of how MLS hopes the initiative would work came when the Chicago Fire signed a 17-year-old Colombian striker named Jhon Duran in 2021 for around $2 million. Duran played one season in MLS, scored eight goals and was promptly transferred to Premier League side Aston Villa for a fee that could rise to $22 million. LAFC’s MLS Cup-winning duo of Jose Cifuentes and Diego Palacios came to the club via the U-22 Initiative. They are two of the most talented and productive young signings in the league’s recent history, though neither was sold for a profit. FC Cincinnati’s Álvaro Barreal was an all-star who scored five goals with nine assists in 2023. Many other U-22 signings have failed to make an impact, though.

In all, 64 U-22 initiative signings played in MLS in 2023, scoring 112 goals and assisting on 128. That averages out to just four goals and four assists per team, far from the type of on-field impact of designated players, many of whom are closer to their prime. The hope, of course, is that that production continues to rise as the younger players develop.

Despite the expected volatility of the younger signings in the first three seasons, MLS teams continue to push forward to look for the young stars that they hope can be game-changing signings. Nine more U-22s were added this offseason, with an average age of 19.33.

League executives are bullish on the potential of the U-22 Initiative, and on the league’s overall progress in the transfer market. For now, they seem more focused on honing these types of initiatives rather than loosening restrictions and giving teams sporting departments the autonomy they seek.

“All the rules that everybody has issues with, the discretionary spending and the U-22 rule, it’s all part of a careful plan to ensure that our teams can sign players that make an impact and do it in a way where we’re not driving what could be instability,” Garber said. “And we are still living in a world where MLS is still a growth opportunity. … We will do whatever we need to do to grow our fan base, to build the competitiveness of our league and to grow our revenues and, ultimately, the credibility and viability of MLS on a global stage.

“Nothing is going to stop us from doing that, but we just want to be thoughtful about it.”

(Top image: Rich Storry/Getty Images. Graham Stokes/Icon Sportswire, Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images; Design: Daniel Goldfarb)

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