Star-Studded MLS Is an International Player

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

For the Kansas City Wizards, the ramifications could have been devastating. It was late January, the MLS club was preparing to open training camp and forward Eddie Johnson had just reached agreement to join Fulham in the English Premier League.

The move did not surprise the Wizards, for Johnson had nearly dashed to Europe last summer. But it did leave them in a jam: How do you replace your leading scorer on short notice?

There is no free agency in MLS. The college draft does not offer instant stars. And the handful of U.S. players based in Europe who could fill the void are almost impossible to acquire.

So the Wizards ventured into the vast international marketplace, an increasingly common destination for MLS teams to buy and sell players.

Within six weeks, they had found their man: Claudio L¿pez, a veteran of the fabled European leagues and Argentina's national team.

A foreign signing is nothing new in MLS. Imports have formed the league's personality since its launch in 1996, starting with Carlos Valderrama, Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno and continuing in recent years with Carlos Ru¿z, Christian G¿mez and David Beckham.

But the rapid movement of players this winter -- arrivals from Switzerland, Scotland and all over Latin America, departures to Scandinavia, Germany and Austria -- suggests that MLS has become a full-fledged international merchant, albeit with a smaller credit limit.

"When you lose a player of Eddie's caliber, it's nerve-racking because he's a proven player," Wizards Coach Curt Onalfo said this week. "But you have to deal with change and be ready for the next move. We had a laundry list of foreign players, and when we lost him, we jumped on it."

D.C. United, the Wizards' season-opening opponent tomorrow night in Kansas City, Kan., has used the international arena to overhaul its roster.

Troy Perkins, United's starting goalkeeper the past two years, wanted to play in Europe, so the club sold him to a Norwegian club. One new goalie, Zach Wells, was acquired in a trade, and another, Jos¿ Carvallo, arrived on loan from Peru.

Midfielder Bryan Arguez had not shown much progress in his rookie season last year, so when Germany's Hertha Berlin expressed interest, United collected a transfer fee and applied it toward filling immediate needs.

Those needs arrived from Argentina (Marcelo Gallardo, Franco Niell and Gonzalo Peralta) and Colombia (Gonzalo Mart¿nez). All of those players started in the second leg of the Champions' Cup quarterfinals against Jamaica's Harbour View last week and might end up in the lineup tomorrow against the Wizards.

Though Gallardo was out of contract and free to join United, the club paid a steep price in the form of $1 million-plus salary, the largest in club history.

United began pursuing Gallardo after failing to reach contract terms with Argentina's Christian Gomez, the 2006 league MVP. Having cultivated relationships with player agencies in Latin America, United was in position to initiate talks with Gallardo and negotiate a deal within a month.

"We are hearing from players who want to come here, and at the same time, teams are showing interest in our players," said United General Manager Dave Kasper, who has made numerous trips abroad since joining the club in 2002. "It's a sign the league is heading in the right direction and that we have arrived in the global market."

As MLS continues to expand the number of teams (a 14th this season and two more the next two years) and emphasize improvement in the quality of play, it will have to rely on the international player pool because "we are not going to develop overnight new domestic players," Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis said.

An increasing number of MLS teams have launched youth development programs but, Gazidis warned, "It's going to take some time for our first homegrown players to start filtering onto MLS rosters."

To accommodate more seasoned international players, the league recently eliminated the distinction between youth and senior foreigners and increased the overall limit per team from seven to eight. (The previous rule was three youth and four seniors.)

MLS's designated player rule, which allows teams to acquire a player outside the regular salary cap restrictions, is in its second year and has been exercised primarily to sign foreign stars, such as Beckham, Gallardo and L¿pez. For the most part, though, tight budgets have forced teams to pursue secondary players from big countries, such as Peralta, or emerging stars from small countries, such as Honduras's Mauricio Castro (New England).

While the league pursues foreign talent, Gazidis said MLS must also welcome the prospect of losing players overseas "because if that was not happening, it would be an indictment of the standard of play in Major League Soccer."

Though its season starts this weekend, MLS teams are likely to make additional moves this summer when the international buying and selling season heats up again.

"People are realizing our league is getting better -- they're looking at our players and we are signing more of theirs," Onalfo said. "The positive energy is out there."

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