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 Major League Soccer.
Despite its stated ambitions, MLS is not considered one of the best leagues in the world. For years it pursued an attention-grabbing, star-centred strategy similar to China’s. American teams have a trade deficit worthy of a White House tweet storm, buying $69 million worth of players last year while selling just $2.4 million.
But with a wave of youthful South American signings and a slick-dribbling Canadian teenager, MLS is trying to change all that and produce some much-desired cash for a league that continues to lose money each year.
The player who may shift the narrative is Alphonso Davies, 17, a Liberian left-footed winger who has already made 63 appearances for the Vancouver Whitecaps, the first when he was only 15. Davies, whose talents will be on display at Wednesday night’s All-Star Game, was born in a Ghanaian refugee camp and emigrated to Canada at age five.
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’s 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 don’t believe a 17-year-old MLS player can hack it in the Bundesliga.
Davies said in an interview on Monday that consistent minutes in 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 flameouts. 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’s 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. 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 seven-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. Selling homegrown stars could completely change the economics for MLS, as there aren’t many opportunities for immediate revenue growth.
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.
© 2018 The New York Times