The doors to MLS’s international marketplace have swung wide open and, with the season nosing past the midway point, some clubs have made ambitious shopping lists.
Advance orders from England are now available for pickup: Frank Lampard by New York City FC and Steven Gerrard by the Los Angeles Galaxy. Italian maestro Andrea Pirlo is joining NYCFC and Mexico’s Giovani dos Santos might be on his way to L.A. or elsewhere.
Amid the flurry of silly rumors and serious negotiations of the summer transfer period, though, D.C. United is just browsing.
United’s cost-conscious management has been reluctant to spend on marquee international players until the pathway to profitability (i.e. the new stadium) is within view.
Despite playing in a big town, United is a small-market team squeezing the most from affordable personnel and working the trade channels rather than signing pricey stars. The austerity measures on East Capitol Street have worked out: first place in the Eastern Conference last year, first overall in the 20-team league this season and a modest payroll.
Consider: Toronto FC’s terrific trio of Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore will reportedly earn a combined $19.5 million this season. United’s highest-paid player makes maybe “.5.”
United is 11 points ahead of TFC (although the Canadian side has played four fewer matches). Toronto’s star power may carry greater championship potential, but United is getting more out of a limited budget.
Next month, United will visit a NYCFC team featuring three players with global name recognition: Pirlo, Lampard and Spain’s David Villa.
“Our philosophy right now is that we like our team and, if something comes along that makes sense for us, we will jump at it,” Coach Ben Olsen said. “We’re always looking to get better in the transfer window, but we also understand there is a good chance this is the group we have for the rest of the year — and I am perfectly fine with that.”
Let’s be clear: These are not Olsen’s decisions. They are not General Manager Dave Kasper’s, either. The duo is merely following orders from above. And they’ve accomplished more than anyone could have expected.
From a personnel standpoint, United is not in urgent need of expensive help; it’s doing just fine with a mix of well-traveled veterans and young players who have bonded well over 18 months.
Is it championship material? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a good team bound for the playoffs again. Playing in the lesser conference, an MLS Cup berth is not out of the question.
MLS this month did introduce a mechanism providing budget relief, but Targeted Allocation Money, as it’s known, is geared toward clubs seeking to expand their pool of designated players (those earning more than $436,250). It does not apply right away to lighter-spending teams, such as United.
D.C. is expecting to gain some financial flexibility when it’s allowed to drop forward Eddie Johnson from the roster. The club’s highest wage-earner in 2014 will retire because of a heart condition; he did not play this season. MLS canceled his contract long ago, yet he remains on the club’s and league’s player list. Legal issues are the likely holdup.
Even with Johnson off United’s books, the amount of money available would not be as much as it seems. Halfway through the season, the value of his salary is half as much. And the extra funds United spent on him for designated player status returns to the club’s coffers.
Why not apply those resources to another high-end player? Keep in mind, United has committed money during the season to the active roster: Goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s new contract will almost triple his base salary and several others in the final year of their contracts, most notably midfielder Perry Kitchen, are seeking new deals.
In other words, United appears to be putting more thought into current players than prospective players. That does not mean United will remain silent. After the international window closes, clubs will have another five weeks to execute trades and make additional roster moves.
On the trade front, Olsen said, “there is a lot of chatter within the league right now, some teams that want to shake things up.”
History suggests United is better off in the trade market than the signing market. Consider the favorable terms that brought Luis Silva, Davy Arnaud, Chris Rolfe, Kofi Opare and Jairo Arrieta to Washington in the past two years. Then look back at DP signings Johnson, Marcelo Gallardo and Hamdi Salihi.
History also suggests teams retaining their core throughout the season fare better than clubs attempting to integrate high-end, mid-season signings.
With the course set, Olsen is aiming to build cohesion and momentum with the current cast.
“We need to understand that other teams are going to get better in the transfer market,” Olsen said. “That means we have to get better, and we do that by getting healthy and finding our best 11.”
As for player acquisitions, “We are looking, but if it’s not within our means, then it’s not there. We will move on with the team we have. Everybody inside these walls is okay with that.”