‘The Big Three’ era has arrived in MLS – I hope it doesn’t last

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In the space of a week, Toronto FC have gone from the laughing stock of Major League Soccer to headline makers. The club, which has failed to reach the playoffs in any of their eight seasons, has committed a reported $70 million in wages over the next five years to bring in Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco as designated players.

It is the arrival of Italian international Giovinco that has led to the talk of Toronto changing the face of MLS. The attacking midfielder is 27-years-old, significantly younger than the usual age for players signed under the ‘Beckham rule’. Despite struggling to make the team at Juventus this season, he remained a member of the Italian national team and could have expected a move to a first division European club when his contract ran out this summer.

The Giovinco signing is proof then, that European players not yet beyond their prime, are willing to come to North America to play if the money is right. We already knew that the likes of Steven Gerrard, David Villa and Kaka would come to MLS for the final years of their careers – this is something different. 

While the deal is eye-catching, at least doubling Giovinco’s net salary from Juve, it is unlikely to herald the start of an MLS ‘gold rush’. Toronto is so far the only MLS club willing to pay well over European market value for players.

The real significance is that Toronto are following the example of the LA Galaxy by creating MLS’s version of NBA’s ‘Big Three’.

While the Miami Heat showed the approach can work in basketball, the question is whether it can be effective in a sport where there are eleven players on a team and not five. 

Altidore, despite his dismal spell at Sunderland, should be good enough to score goals in Major League Soccer. Giovinco, despite fading from the limelight at Juventus, is good enough to create them and score a few himself too. Michael Bradley is a top quality central midfielder, who if it wasn’t for Toronto’s money would still be playing at a good level in Europe.

But then what about the other eight players on the field? What about the back-up squad players? What about the coaching staff? What about the playoff game when Giovinco is injured?

Toronto head coach Greg Vanney said this week: “Michael will play a bit deeper in midfield with Giovinco connecting us to the attacking half. Then Jozy finishes things off for us.”

He surely knows it isn’t going to be that simple. 

Vanney, in his first head coaching job, now has to make a success out of the most expensive, but also must unbalanced, MLS team ever assembled. It strikes me as remarkable that a club which can spend so freely on designated players, couldn’t find a coach with more experience but in fairness even Jose Mourinho would be tested by handling a locker-room where three players earn seven times more than the rest of the squad combined.

It can work though. LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena managed the process well, with Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, all on designated player deals, but he did so with a team that had gradually evolved, with plenty of experienced players and as a coach with three decades of experience.

But the situation does raise a broader question. What if a club could spend Toronto’s $20 million a year salary budget, spread out on a squad of 16 players? In other words, what if they behaved like any other club in the world – trying to assemble the best squad possible on a given budget?

The reason MLS has such a unique set-up is that it believes a salary cap can keep costs down, stop teams driving up transfer fees and salaries and maintain a level of equality between clubs that allows anyone to win the league – the oft-mentioned ‘parity’.

But where is parity when Toronto can spend more on three players than another six clubs will spend on their entire squads?

Where is the parity when LA Galaxy have won three of the last four league titles and still get assistance (reportedly $750,000) from the league in signing Steven Gerrard on a $6 million a year deal?

The Designated Player rule was originally created to allow each club to have one big name signing that, primarily, had a marketing and promotional value – a Beckham, a Thierry Henry, a Cuauhtémoc Blanco. It was a good idea.

But it has gradually been expanded to three slots and there is constant talk of a fourth.

Adding one star player to an MLS roster doesn’t have a massive impact on the competitive balance in the league. Adding three or four certainly could. But it also forces coaches into the unnatural position Vanney now finds himself in.

MLS is a success story in so many ways yet its weak point remains the quality on the field in most games. Adding three ‘stars’ to a mediocre team might bring results in television ratings and other areas but it doesn’t help improve standards overall significantly. Allowing teams to spend more, as they please, would.

Increasing the salary cap radically would allow the clubs who can’t afford the Gerrards and Giovincos to at least be able to keep their squads together and to gradually improve them in areas of need. Imagine if Real Salt Lake, instead of having to dissemble and rebuild their squad over the past three seasons, had been able to build upon it, adding quality where it made sense, offering salary increases to those who merited them?

Is the best future for MLS really one of low-paid average players supporting a couple of big-name stars?

A talented central defender with little marketing value may make more sense for some MLS teams doing more to raise their standard, than a ‘name’ from Europe. Some clubs, on the other hand, might need a star to raise their profile and boost attendances. Others would choose to invest in their homegrown players or recruit from Central America as some clubs are already doing, albeit within the restraints of a tight salary cap.

Clubs will have different approaches but the problem with the status quo is that it gives a free hand to clubs massive budgets, such as Toronto and LA, to bring in big, glamor signings, but it keeps a tight lid on teams who would like to build more organically.

It no longer makes much sense.

Editor’s note: Today marks Simon Evans’ debut column for World Soccer Talk. He’ll be sharing his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics every Thursday. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans.

6 Comments

  1. Kartik Krishnaiyer January 22, 2015
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  2. jay January 22, 2015
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