European soccer's new hunting ground

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

For Major League Soccer clubs, the January transfer window was once just that – something to peer through and gaze admiringly at the delights on offer rather than a mechanism in which they could become significant participants.

However, following a month that saw unprecedented movement involving MLS teams, it has become abundantly clear they are no longer merely prepared to stand out in the cold with their nose pressed against the glass. Nor will they be allowed to.

It seemed barely a January day went by without a player from MLS either being linked to, or completing a move, to Europe. In the international marketplace, the league's range of wares attracted attention like never before.

Eddie Johnson's switch from the Kansas City Wizards to English Premiership side Fulham was the most notable of the month, but a more surprising development was the signing of D.C. United reserve Bryan Arguez by Hertha Berlin of the German Bundesliga.

Yet anyone expecting hushed and panicked conversations in the MLS corridors of power regarding the departing talent should think again. According to deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis, the emergence of MLS as a hunting ground for cash-laden European clubs is a major plus.

"We want overseas teams interested in our players," said Gazidis in a telephone interview with Yahoo! Sports. "The more respect our league has, the more interest there will be around the world. That is a positive dynamic from our point of view. We are more of a player in the international market and there is more fluidity in both directions."

Gazidis and MLS commissioner Don Garber are comfortable that the resources and networks are in place to ensure the product on the field is not negatively affected. The league has several reasons not to fear raids from European clubs, too. The approaches from top-tier teams like Fulham for Johnson can be taken as a stamp of approval for MLS and can be used to convince targets that the United States can be a stepping stone and not a retirement home.

Then there is the financial aspect. The lucrative transfer fees can be collected for selling players and used to re-stock MLS squads with quality acquisitions. Many of the newcomers who arrive over the next few years are likely to hail from South America, where the prospect of an MLS contract is becoming an increasingly attractive proposition.

After taking care of necessary infrastructure matters such as stadiums and television deals, the league, and Gazidis in particular, decided last year that steps to improve the overall standard of play needed to be brought in. The designated player rule that hastened the arrival of David Beckham, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Juan Pablo Angel and others was the first phase, but that is merely part of a long-term strategy which Gazidis feels certain will elevate the product to progressively higher levels over the next decade.

Most leagues in the world of soccer are either buyers or sellers. The biggest buyers of the lot are the English Premiership, Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A. Others, like countless smaller European and many African leagues, depend on the money raised from offloading their most promising players in order to maintain fiscal stability.

MLS is in a unique position in that, financially, it doesn't need to sell players like Johnson or D.C. United goalkeeper Troy Perkins (who joined Norwegian club Valerenga). However, as was displayed in January, many teams feel that money can be used more productively to recruit cheap and motivated performers from elsewhere.

"We are in both categories," Gazidis said. "We are certainly a buying league. We import talent, some of them world-class stars. We are certainly not a typical selling league. Some of our more average players are being valued by overseas teams. Those players are being offered salaries we could compete with if we chose to, but our teams are being more selective and using their money wisely.

"The state of the dollar makes it cheaper for European clubs to access our players. I think it mainly applies to transfer fees. If I am a player doing calculations then I am thinking that it is also more expensive to live in Europe – so the main factor is our clubs can get in attractive transfer fees for their players."

Gazidis firmly believes the changes that are occurring in MLS now are potentially as significant as those that took place in the Premiership during the decade following the mid-1990s, when that league was reinvigorated by brilliant foreigners such as Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.

With the new MLS season still nearly two months away, D.C. United has already snapped up three Argentineans (including designated player Marcelo Gallardo), a Peruvian and a Colombian to add to their Supporters Shield-winning roster.

The hope is that the skill factor the South American players bring will rub off on their American teammates and allow MLS to cultivate more talent of its own. It is hoped that this effect can be of positive benefit to the United States national team, and certainly, the early signs are good. Few would disagree that Jozy Altidore has benefited from operating alongside Angel for the New York Red Bulls, or Chris Rolfe from playing with Blanco.

But where is it all leading?

Well, Gazidis, the South African-born, UK-raised, lifelong Manchester City supporting visionary carries the blueprint for the future inside his brain and believes he has the answer.

"I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that MLS will be a major soccer league in the world," he said. "Growth is inevitable, both because of demographics and because of how the world is bound together.

"It is happening under our noses right now. I have seen it from the beginning. We have been pushing to the tipping point for years, and we feel it has tipped already."

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