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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Friday, February 1, 2013

MLS enjoys an impressive close to the transfer window

It’s been an international transfer window book-ended by attention for MLS.

Days before the window opened, FIFA president Sepp Blatter made headlines by swiping at MLS’ progress, both in the world of soccer and the American mainstream.

“It is a question of time, I thought – we had the World Cup in 1994,” Blatter said Dec. 30. “But it is now 18 years in so it should have been done now. But they are still struggling. … There is no very strong professional league (in the U.S.). They have just the MLS but they have no professional leagues which are recognized by the American society.”

As with most of the hot air emanating from the Swiss exec, Blatter’s withering criticism didn’t make way for facts. The dealings in the transfer window didn’t seem to want to follow Blatter’s paradigm either. So a month on from Blatter’s blithering assertions, MLS has shown itself to be a chic marketplace for big European clubs to do their shopping.
This year’s transfer window has included a bevy of MLS talents crossing the pond. English Premier League club Wigan Athletic had lined up Sporting Kansas City’s Roger Espinoza before the window even opened; he’s paid immediate dividends, including a two-assist performance against Stoke in the midweek round of fixtures for the relegation-threatened side. Also in the Prem, Norwich City has captured Espinoza’s former teammate Kei Kamara on loan until the end of the season, while Stoke completed a long-awaited capture of American international and former Dallas player Brek Shea. Plus there’s that David Beckham guy.

In other late window dealings, Belgian club Anderlecht, which American Sasha Klejstan calls home, picked up D.C. United’s Andy Najar. Then there are the loan deals of Carlos Valdes (from the Union to Independiente Santa Fe) and Fredy Montero (from Seattle to Millonarios) to improve their chances of selection for a Colombia team that is suddenly looking like a 2014 World Cup qualifier.

ESPN’s Graham Ruthven explores the market forces in great detail, which include American players being more affordable in this era of Financial Fair Play than many South American leagues. This isn’t a new phenomenon; top American players like Landon Donovan (loans to Everton), Geoff Cameron (Stoke) and Clint Dempsey (Fulham, now Tottenham) have long been commonplace.

But among the names making headlines, only Shea is an American international. Espinoza has been capped by Honduras 26 times, plus four games for them in this summer’s Olympics. Kamara, who came through the American college system, was named the 2012 Sierra Leone footballer of the year; when he suits up for Norwich, he’ll be only the third Sierra Leonean footballer in 20 years of the Premier League. Najar is of Honduran descent, though he had the option of playing internationally for the United States.

These are players that don’t fit the stereotypes typically associated with MLS as a league of college grads and old guys whose names are of more value than their on-field contributions. (That Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry and Beckham had loan spells from MLS to European clubs also disputes that.) MLS, and college soccer as well, draws from an amazingly diverse pool of talent. The Union, for instance, have players from eight different nations.

The league is ever improving its scouting and talent acquisition from Latin American, and while it may never be the prime destination for South America’s elite, it is providing a stage for players from many Central American nations. There’s also a large population of Africans in the States and a growing number of talented players of such descent in the league, players who are developing alongside the American national team program.

The money doesn’t lie: MLS’s profile is being raised around the world. Time for Blatter to get on board.

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