Soccer

Jack: Bradley's MLS arrival shouldn't come as a surprise

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Kristian Jack
1/8/2014 10:40:26 PM
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Five years ago, I was presenting a radio show and had MLS Commissioner Don Garber on as a guest.

Five years is a long time in life. In football, five years is a lifetime.

Nevertheless, one thing I still remember from the conversation was the subject of players from the United States of America plying their trade in Major League Soccer.

American defender Michael Parkhurst was a player I admired a lot, but had recently left the league to play in Denmark.

I meant no disrespect to the Danish Super League when I asked the question, but I wanted to know how a league with lofty ambitions could justify losing one of its best players, who is American, to a lesser known European league.

The commissioner, as he often does in interviews, gave a thoughtful, realistic view in that he knew, for many Americans, that the league could not stand in the way of their ambitions to make it to the top level in the game. 

At the time, the designated player rule was so new, it wasn't even walking yet. 

Born a year earlier when David Beckham joined Major League Soccer, the rule was seen by clubs as a way for the club to throw a large amount of money at one player from anywhere around the world to make their club better.

The problem the league had at the time was that the spots, one per team, were so exclusive, clubs had to be very careful who they selected. Their pursuit was made even more difficult by the fact that few top players wanted to come. Clubs were shopping with deep pockets but were diverted from Beverly Hills to garage sales.

In time, the league grew, more soccer specific stadiums were built with expansion on an almost yearly basis alongside new television deals and boosted revenues and, as such, the designated player rule evolved with the league, allowing teams to now purchase two or three players from around the world.

These spots are the aces in the pack for a club's general managers.

Most of North America's major sports are governed by a salary cap, designed to increase parity, which is supposedly good for the game. But what of the owners who want to spend more money on their team but cannot? These rich owners are used to getting what they want.

In a one-on-one sit-down with TSN.ca last October, Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen told me some of the hurdles the organization has to face when it comes to participating in a salary cap league.

"Some of the rules are incredibly frustrating when you are a club that has the resources that we have, you get held back," he said. "It's communism really, trying to make everybody even, where we live in a democracy and (TFC) is kind of the Canada of the world, we are very progressive but we get held back by league rules, some of which I still cannot believe, obviously designed for parity but that's the MLS world we live in and it is done for a reason, with the best intentions of providing parity for the league and putting the league in a position where it can move on and continue to be very successful."

Nelsen believes the 19-team league has never been more competitive.

"Clubs are running it so much better than when I played, they understand what it takes for success, there's only really been a few clubs that haven't really caught up with the infrastructure of running it, and now that is changing, even the likes of Chivas and ourselves, we are getting back into that now, and next season I cannot see very many teams, like it was last year with teams like Chivas, DC and us on 20 odd points, do that, I think we will see even more parity which is going to be phenomenal, " the coach stated.

Such parity puts an even stronger emphasis on getting an edge over your rivals.

There are so many layers of the sport that allow teams to be better than others, even if they spend the same amount of money. Making the right decisions regularly at a number of different levels, including scouting, developing and coaching, can put a team ahead of many before a ball is kicked in anger. The designated player, however, is the only area where owners can flex their financial muscles.

For Toronto FC owners, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, this provides an opportunity to separate yourself from some of the other owners in the league. 

Every offseason, teams across the league are looking for value. It is not just whether the player is good enough, it comes down to how much the player is going to cost and if the team can ensure they will get that value, or even exceed it, from the player that season. This is no different when it comes to designated players. For MLSE, who have run a moribund franchise for seven years, these three slots needed to go from Hail Mary, shots-in-the-darks to golden tickets, capable of attracting the finest players available in the game today.

When you are a company who, earlier this season, paid NBA player Rudy Gay over $340,000 US a week and, more recently, signed Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phanuef an average of $135,000 US per week, there is no issue in handing a similar contract to two international players to get them to come play for Toronto FC and ignite a team that could easily have been left to be watched by 5,000 diehards in three years if it carried on down the pathetic path it has lived on since it was born.

The league does not let you overspend on the rest of your roster, so if you are willing to do whatever it takes financially to improve the squad this is your best bet.

Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley are obviously not two of the finest players in the game, but they are two of the finest players available. They are players who are not coming to Toronto and MLS for a pension. They are players who can make a difference, are willing to listen, are available, and, of course, extremely interested in the money, which isn't anywhere close to the amount of money any team in Europe is willing to pay them.

Some fans would take this to mean they are not worth the money they are being paid by Toronto FC, but that is incorrect. The money they are getting is only relevant in terms of how it is attracting them to the club. Defoe and Bradley are unique players who can make a difference on and off the field.

Defoe is arguably the best player in the game today that Toronto FC could realistically get, someone who is accomplished at the most difficult thing to do in the game: scoring goals. Seeing that he tops such a list, you could argue he is being underpaid. There is no other genuine goal-scorer from a top European league available with a proven track record better than Defoe, who could also put Nelsen down on his resume, as if he needed one, as a reference considering what he told me about the English striker back in October.

Nelsen's face lit up when we chatted about Defoe.

"My goodness, one of the most natural goalscorers I have ever come across, always out training, always trying to score, a great guy, to get a guy like Jermain Defoe, gee whizz, never gets injured, doesn't drink, can play high, play low, scores all types of goals, perfect for the MLS, he would phenomenal," he said.

Bradley is 26 and when news broke of his impending transfer to Toronto many people were stunned that he would be willing to come play in Major League Soccer at that age. However, this is no longer 2008. We should no longer be surprised.

The designated player rule has given the league an opportunity to make talented players think twice about playing in Europe and that's how it should be. Bradley's expected wage in Toronto far exceeds what he was getting at Roma, and would get anywhere in Europe, just as Clint Dempsey's deal with theSeattle Sounders does.

Instead of these players sitting on the bench and getting occasional substitute appearances, because 'that's where they are supposed to play because it is the top level,' they are now being rewarded for being close to the top of an exclusive list held in the hands of MLS general managers. 

As I suggested to the commissioner in 2008, having the very best Americans playing in the league is extremely important. The likes of Bradley, Dempsey and Landon Donovan will become household names by millions before and during the World Cup and now none of them are disappearing off to play in a different league afterwards. They are all coming to play in a North American city near you very soon.

The word Major in MLS is starting to really matter.



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