Breaking this weekend was the surprising news that 2010 MLS MVP candidate Edson Buddle was poised to make his long-discussed move overseas. What made it surprising was that the move was not to Birmingham City, which is where he had long been rumored to go, but to FC Ingolstadt, a Bundesliga 2 club that is currently in danger of being relegated to the third German soccer division. Fox Sports, which broke the story, reports that the major reason why Buddle chose the German club was his work permit fell through in England and the club was offering him double his MLS salary. Ingolstadt may sound familiar to American soccer fans – American national Amaechi Igwe is currently on the roster while Freddy Adu held a try-out with the club recently.
For the Los Angeles Galaxy, the moves leaves them in quite a bind. Their leading scorer is gone, and the player they selected in the re-entry draft (Juan Pablo Angel) to compliment him has not yet signed a contract, leaving the club with a huge void up front. Expect Angel now to have a huge boost in his negotiations and be able to obtain the designated player slot he is seeking. But even if Angel does sign, the Galaxy can no longer be considered the overwhelming pre-season favorites for the 2011 MLS Cup. Their only signed forward is Jovan Kirovski and while Angel is quite good, he is also older than Buddle. More importantly, it is a big hit to their depth up front.
But there is a larger issue here, and it is the failure of MLS to secure American internationals for the league. Regardless of how highly you view the league (and I personally regard it very highly), some Americans are better served playing overseas than in MLS. Not just the best national team players like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, but even players who have played in the U.S. and need to see if they are as good as everyone thinks they are (Stuart Holden) or are up-and-comers that need to be tested in an international system (Jozy Altidore). But Buddle is the kind of player that not only benefits from MLS but also benefits the league. He grew up in the U.S. system and achieved his big break through this year playing for an MLS club. He is the kind of player that, if he continues to succeed in the U.S. and on Bob Bradley’s team, becomes more of a name in the American soccer world and makes MLS a more legitimate league for having quality players like him.
That’s not to say that Buddle does not deserve a shot overseas; maybe MLS is holding him back and he needs to see just how quality of a player he is. But when that opportunity falls through due to a permit problem, he moves to a side that will not allow him to play against the world’s best. Ingolstadt is not a top-flight club; in fact the club in its current incarnation has only been around seven years and has never played in the Bundesliga. This is not a move up; it’s a move down in terms of league quality.
The Fox Sports article nails the issue – Ingolstadt offered Buddle twice his salary after Galaxy would not give Buddle a designated player contract. Now with two designated players already, LA had some choices to make but on any other club Buddle would be considered DP-status. And he should be – as I said, he raises both MLS’s and the national team’s profile, as well as any club on which he would play (as well as being a really good player). But again an American goes overseas because MLS will not fork over the money to keep them in the U.S. In this way, Buddle is very similar to his possible teammate Freddy Adu – Adu’s career is stuck in neutral but he is not going back to MLS, a logical place to jumpstart his career, because he is making more overseas playing for second division clubs.
MLS has made good progress in keeping talented players in the U.S., both experienced and star players (designated player rule) as well as young college stars (Generation adidas). But now MLS needs to consider how it can keep the Buddle-type players (who are successful) and the Adu-players (who could be successful) in the United States. I would recommend a new designated player category for American players, which similar to other designated players would only have part of their salary count against the cap. This would allow teams financial flexibility to bring these players home and not only give them exposure to U.S. audiences, but allow them to compete against good competition. Ultimately, the answer may be a system like in Europe of free agency and academies, but until MLS is as lucrative as those leagues an American DP slot is the best way to keep American stars in the most beneficial place – here.