Monday, August 20, 2012

The MLS Trading Game

Article by Leanne Elston

As far as I’m concerned, Major League Soccer is, aside from the League of Parity, also the League of Trades. (Known alternatively as the League of Wait, What? and League of No Really, Where Are They Now? respectively.) While player transfers are part of the game no matter where you go in the world (looking at you, Robin Van Persie), it’s always felt to me like MLS has a particular affinity for trading, and trading, and then trading some more. Players move around this league like they’re all participating in some sort of Speed Dating game. The guy with the most phone numbers at the end wins.

Even if you just look at players moving around the league, whether as transfers or trades, it’s something else. Those players we might consider MLS stars, the ones who makes us think, “man that guy just is MLS” -- your Landon Donovans, Chris Wondolowskis, Brian Chings -- they’ve been around. New fans of the league might think Donovan has been with the LA Galaxy for, like, forever, because he’s sort of the face of their team right now. But Donovan started his career in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen before returning to the States on loan for the San Jose Earthquakes -- oh snap, he used to belong to the Other Guys of the California Clásico.

Oh, and Wondolowski? Yeah, he began his journey with San Jose, but he only made two appearances with the Quakes before Houston got him. Wondo didn’t become our MLS darling until he came back to San Jose and acquired his scoring superpowers. Brian Ching, who these days bleeds Dynamo orange, put in time with the Galaxy, Earthquakes, and Seattle Sounders before joining Houston in 2006 (and there were those few months he belonged to the Montreal Impact this year, too).

Of course, there’s a lot of movement that occurs in the gap between the end of one season and the beginning of another. Not only do you have the SuperDraft and the Supplemental Draft, but you also have some general “we gotta fix something” for those clubs who didn’t end up where they wanted in the standings. The Vancouver Whitecaps were an expansion team in the 2011 season and they wound up in last place. So they shuffled the pieces around a bit, and now they’re sitting in the playoff picture (League of Parity...).

Look at DC United, too; after a somewhat abysmal couple years, they set out to regain some former glory and almost completely overhauled the team. In fact, they shook things up so much that currently the longest tenured player on the team is Chris Pontius, who joined in 2009 as a draft pick. DC, by the way, ended up trading would-be-savior-captain Dax McCarty (who came from Dallas) to the New York Red Bulls for another of those MLS-through-and-through guys, Dwayne DeRosario; it was DeRo’s third club that season (and he’d played on two other MLS teams previously, too).

For the month of August, we’ve so far seen four trades:
  • The New England Revolution traded Shalrie Joseph to Chivas USA for Blair Gavin, a second round pick in the 2013 SuperDraft, and allocation money.
  • The Portland Timbers traded Troy Perkins to the Montreal Impact for Donovan Ricketts.
  • The Portland Timbers traded Mike Chabala to DC United for a first round pick in the 2014 Supplemental Draft.
  • DC United traded Danny Cruz to the Philadelphia Union for Lionard Pajoy.
One of these trades isn’t especially interesting -- Chabala to DC didn’t cause a huge stir. But three out of four of these trades certainly drummed up some chatter. Shalrie Joseph was the captain of the Revolution and had been with the club since 2003; it might have been for the best that he left, but it was still a big trade and the end of an era for the Revs. Portland and Montreal literally swapping goalkeepers was one of the more confusing trades I’ve seen in a while (some real “offer you can’t refuse” going down there). Finally, Danny Cruz going to the Union in exchange for Lionard Pajoy was slightly baffling considering DC United recently brought in another striker, Long Tan, from the Vancouver Whitecaps and have two other forwards in Maicon Santos and DP Hamdi Salihi.

The type of trading that we see so often in MLS isn’t something we really see abroad. Transfers are common, yes, but the practice of trading one player for another? Not so much. In Europe and elsewhere, players move to other clubs either on loans, for free, or for undisclosed giant amounts of money. You simply will not see Manchester United and Chelsea eying each other’s rosters and then negotiating a deal of, say, Javier Hernández for Romelu Lukaku. Players move around the English Premier League, but it’s not Soccer Speed Dating -- it’s wining and dining.

MLS deals in transfers, too, of course. Obviously movement doesn’t only happen internally. Players come in from other leagues, and they do that on loans, for free, or for certain amounts of money. It’s not that MLS is static or somehow less functional than other leagues. The trading game in MLS is just another aspect of this league that sets it apart. 

Turnover happens. Turnover is normal. The point is that, if you’re a fan of an MLS club and you get attached to players easily...well, look out. You might wake up tomorrow and find that your captain has been traded away. You might be scrolling through Twitter only to discover that your team unexpectedly traded away a player or two and you gotta get used to a new guy. One of your guys might be thrown out into the Speed Dating game again, just making his way down the tables, adding phone numbers to his list.


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