United Buys off the Rack, Not European Catwalks

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 7, 2007

During the winter, while the Los Angeles Galaxy's chase of David Beckham was gaining traction and other MLS clubs were contemplating pursuit of high-profile European players, D.C. United was strengthening its bond with decidedly low-profile figures in Latin America.

MLS had relaxed its salary guidelines, allowing teams to sign one international star, but United figured there was a better way to replenish its roster. And as the league prepares to kick off its 12th season today with five matches, including D.C. playing the Colorado Rapids in Denver, United will unveil two new players who do not carry Beckham's cachet -- or his price tag.

Beckham will make an estimated annual salary of $5 million when he joins the Galaxy later this summer. United's two biggest offseason acquisitions -- Brazilians Luciano Emilio and Fred -- together will earn an estimated $350,000 per year. But by adding Emilio, who already has scored four goals for United in four Champions' Cup matches, and Fred, who is expected to be a key component of the team's attack, United officials believe they are in position for a fifth MLS championship and long-term viability.

"Generally we feel the European market is grossly overvalued for what the players deliver," club president Kevin Payne said. "We have found that Brazilians and Argentines have a great ethic. They are not mercenaries. It appears a number of European players have come here for the payday. They tend to come with the idea that the league is not very good."

Payne said there have been exceptions, and he believes Beckham will be a good player for MLS. But he believes scouting in Latin America is a better financial move, because the players generally have lower salary demands and the talent pool is deep.

With that in mind, United's front office has laid years of groundwork in Latin America, nurturing working relationships with player agencies as well as individual clubs. D.C. technical director Dave Kasper, who oversees player personnel matters, has led at least 10 trips to that talent-rich region the last five years. He has come back with several players from Argentina, including 2006 MLS most valuable player Christian Gomez and defender Facundo Erpen, and now the new Brazilian duo. (Two other Argentines on last year's roster, Lucio Filomeno and Matias Donnet, are no longer with the team.)

So confident in who it could acquire this offseason, United made room by trading two of its most popular players, Freddy Adu and Alecko Eskandarian.

"United has made that a very strong point of emphasis -- its relationships with Argentine clubs, its scouring of the Argentine and Brazilian markets," MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said. "Its success has meant that other teams have had to look at that and look to emulate it."

The league unveiled its "designated player rule" in November, allowing teams to exceed the salary cap to obtain players such as Beckham and former FIFA world players of the year Zinedine Zidane or Luis Figo. In order to pursue such a world renowned European player, United would have had to dismantle its current roster to remain below the salary cap and pay out perhaps millions of its own dollars. Under the new rule, MLS -- which owns all player contracts -- covers $400,000 in salary, leaving the club to cover the rest. The Galaxy's investor, Anschutz Entertainment Group, will pay Beckham at least $4 million this year on top of MLS's commitment.

At the time, "we discussed it, we said we were going to analyze it," Kasper said. "But at the same time we were going to go out and search for players who were going to make us better, make us exciting, and I think we've done that."

United started by signing Emilio, a forward who had been playing in Honduras's modest league, and will pay him an estimated $200,000 this season. Then it added Fred, a midfielder-forward who starred in the Australian league this past winter, for approximately $150,000 per year.

While United had been tracking Emilio for years, its acquisition of Fred was more sudden. Around the time the Beckham talks were intensifying, Kasper and then-coach Peter Nowak traveled to Rio de Janeiro to meet with agent Marcio Bittencourt and look for talent. Bittencourt was educated in the United States and was aware of MLS's unique landscape.

"He understands the American culture, he's intrigued by it -- all he wants to talk about is the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's." Kasper said, laughing. "But his goal was to get a player here."

United was prepared to sign Ruy, a Brazilian midfielder represented by Bittencourt, but decided at the last minute he would not be a good fit. The deal had fallen through but, Payne noted, the relationship had been established.

Bittencourt came back to United later in the winter with the proposal for Fred, a technically gifted player who had helped Melbourne Victory win the Australian title and would soon be out of contract. "We went to Brazil and got a player from Australia," Kasper said. "We've taken steps to get on the ground [in Latin America], to analyze the market, to build relationships with agencies that can help us find players, access players, and close the deals."

Patrick McCabe, a U.S.-based agent who has helped import 35 players to MLS over the years and worked with Bittencourt on the Fred deal, said United is ahead of the curve. "Dave Kasper works smarter and harder than most other teams, and that allows D.C. to be ahead of everyone else," he said. "It's about more than just watching a DVD; you've got to go down there and meet the people who are going to help you in the long run."

In addition to first-hand scouting, United has been watching plenty of those DVDs. It recently upgraded its video capability with $30,000 worth of high-tech equipment capable of recording dozens of matches a day. The club now has about 1,000 DVDs, mostly of Latin American matches, making it possible to summon highlights of a potential recruit on short notice.

"They just have a very smart way of going about fielding their rosters and doing it in a way that is attractive to their fan base," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. "We give them a tremendous amount of credit."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company