Has MLS been hurt by departures like Miazga, Martins and Nemeth?
In recent years, MLS has prided itself on being a "league of choice," and there was some evidence that the league was moving in that direction. International stars such as Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Giovani Dos Santos all arrived. There was also a reverse migration of U.S. internationals, with Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore all returning from Europe.
Which makes what is taking place in the current transfer window all the more strange as the players who left MLS have garnered more attention than those who have arrived.
So far in this window, which isn't due to close until May 12, three current U.S. internationals -- Omar Gonzalez, Matt Miazga, and Perry Kitchen -- left MLS. So have two of the more dynamic attacking players in the league in Obafemi Martins and Krisztian Nemeth. A potential future U.S. international left-back in Jorge Villafana departed for Liga MX, as did LA Galaxy midfielder Juninho, a mainstay of three MLS Cup-winning sides.
You have to go back to 2010 -- when the likes of Stu Holden, Ricardo Clark, Yura Movsisyan and Sacha Kljestan (in the summer) left the league -- to find a comparable number of quality departures.
Granted, the likes of Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong bring considerable pedigree to the LA Galaxy; Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard is close to doing the same with the Colorado Rapids; MLS returnees Movsisyan and Simon Dawkins raise the prospects of Real Salt Lake and the San Jose Earthquakes, respectively. But of the aforementioned departures, only Martins is over 30. The rest are either in the prime of their careers, or in the case of Miazga, have incredible upside.
Of course, there is danger in reading too much into one transfer window and the situation involving each of the departing players has its own components. Miazga and Kitchen were both determined to test their skills in Europe and turned down lucrative offers from the New York Red Bulls and D.C. United, respectively. New York was prepared to make Miazga a Designated Player; a source confirmed to ESPN FC that Kitchen was offered more than $500,000 to stay with D.C. As for Martins, he found his next big payday with Chinese Super League club Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.
So how much of a problem are these departures as it relates to player quality and MLS' stated goal of being a top league by 2022? Martins was one of the best performers in the league, so his loss is keenly felt. As for the others, these are precisely the kinds of players that are the backbone of the league and have a positive, if understated, effect on the league's quality. The task of replacing a proven performer with an unknown quantity carries its share of risk and usually a higher salary, though some teams are more adept at finding replacements than others. There is also no way to completely insulate MLS from the vagaries of the international transfer market, or a player's ambitions.
"This isn't a problem with our league, it's a problem everywhere," Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes told ESPN FC about Nemeth's departure to Qatar's Al-Gharafa. "A guy does decent, and all of a sudden he thinks he should escalate to an incredibly high number. You have to understand, we had Nemeth on [a] four-year deal, we had him tied up. Before he even asked I was already opening up and giving him a good contract for much more money than he currently was under contract for. They basically snubbed it. You only have so much [money], and you can only do so much."
On the other hand, the league's increased profile overseas appears to be providing a defense against any drop in quality due to players leaving MLS. Ted Philipakos, a player agent and professor at New York University, feels that the league is positioned as well as it has ever been to cope with inevitable exits that will occur.
"More players want to be here than ever before," he said. "If you have an opportunity to sell a Martins, you can do it. If you have an opportunity to sell Nemeth, you can do it. If you're going to enter a tough negotiation with a guy like Kitchen or someone like that, generally speaking you're going to be able to replace that player, even though it's a prominent player known to the fans, a player that's good. You can be tough in negotiations knowing that you can go back in the marketplace and find players that want to play here. MLS wasn't saying that as confidently five or 10 years ago."
There is pressure from below as well as MLS clubs to become more adept at developing players from their academy. And if teams from foreign leagues want to overpay for MLS talent, so be it.
"Every player in every sport that's ever been born has a market value," said Seattle GM Garth Lagerwey. "If that market value is exceeded, then you're better off selling that player at that particular time and then reinvesting that money. Are we better off for having sold Obafemi Martins? In the short term probably not. But what I've said is that we'll be better in June than we are in March, and I think we'll be better in September than we are in June. It will open some opportunities for younger players.
"If you're talking about a world of 24 and eventually 28 teams, we're not going to buy our way to that. We're going to have to develop players. It's a short-term pain versus long-term gain."
Whether MLS is doing everything it can to develop and retain players is an open question. The league's arcane set of roster rules appears to act as both help and hindrance. The Portland Timbers recently used Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) to re-sign Darlington Nagbe and Diego Chara to better deals, so that counts as a success story. But the use of TAM is limited, and Vermes indicated that while he's happy to see more money made available, he wouldn't mind having more flexibility to spend the money as he sees fit. Lagerwey for one doesn't anticipate the league changing in this regard.
"It's just [getting] more and more complex," he said of the league's roster rules. "It's like the tax code. I wasn't around in the 1920s, but I imagine it's more complex now than it was then. It's the nature of any kind of rule-making body. You don't ever take away rules from the salary cap, you only add them."
Of course, the easiest way to raise quality and retain players is to pump more money into the system, and it need not come at the expense of single entity.
"There's no other way to do it," said Philipakos. "I don't think it starts with removing certain restrictions, even though I think you can remove some. It starts with spending.
"Unfortunately we're going to have wait a few years for that because we're going to have to wait for the next round of collective bargaining. There was an opportunity to do that now. It didn't happen, and now we have to wait a few more years. It's great that the league went ahead and added the TAM mechanism. We didn't have to wait for another round of collective bargaining for that. But for a more significant push in the cap, unfortunately that's a few years away."
That leaves plenty of time to see if MLS gets closer to its ultimate goal.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.