Fabian Castillo catastrophe highlights MLS's flawed calendar, transfer setup
Earlier this year, FC Dallas lost Fabian Castillo after a bizarre series of events that saw the attacking talent go AWOL from his Major League Soccer club. He soon popped up on Turkish social media feeds, greeting Trabzonspor supporters, and eventually joined the club on loan with an option to buy after an extended negotiation. After the saga, FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo was not pleased, and understandably so, as the Western Conference leaders saw one of their best players move halfway through the year.
While the Castillo catastrophe was unusual in its drama, it's hardly unprecedented for an MLS team to be altered during the season. The domestic league operates on a calendar that runs from early spring to late fall with a primary transfer window in the winter. Many European leagues, on the other hand, play from August to May, meaning their primary transfer period sits in July and August. The timing presents issues for MLS teams, both in terms of signing players in the winter when their costs can be higher because they are regular starters for a European club and under contract, and in the summer period when a situation like FCD's with Castillo can arise.
"One of the biggest challenges is that no team wants to lose a good player in the middle of their season," New York Red Bulls technical director Ali Curtis told ESPN FC.
The timing of the season and the transfer windows alters how league executives think about the makeup of their teams. In 2015, Columbus Crew SC sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter signed DR Congo international Cedrick Mabwati to a pre-contract in the winter but knew the player wouldn't arrive until the summer transfer window. Berhalter wasn't worried.
"We felt that we had enough wide midfielders to get us through until he came," the executive said. When Mabwati finally did reach MLS, the player appeared in nine regular season games and four of the Crew's five postseason matches, including a 27-minute substitute appearance in the MLS Cup final.
Similarly, Berhalter understood that Gaston Sauro would need time to get fit after the Crew signed the big center-back last August. Sauro had been on summer break after a long European season at Serie B side Catania. The Crew management team was patient as Sauro played just seven minutes in his first eight games with the team. When he eventually found the field, he made an immediate impact with seven starts in the team's final eight games. While Berhalter warns that "summer moves haven't been worked out in terms of adding too much," his team bucked the trend on its way to the championship game.
It can also be difficult for an MLS team to improve during the primary transfer window, which falls in the winter. In an ideal world, a player would arrive in February, giving him time to get adjusted to his new surroundings and become acquainted with his new teammates during preseason. But just as an MLS squad is reluctant to part with a key cog in the summer, European teams aren't likely to want to give up one of their contributors during the middle of their season. If they do, the price is much higher than it would be when a player is out of contract during the summer.
Occasionally, however, this dynamic can work out in favor of an MLS team.
"You do get players who fall out of favor with their teams," the Red Bulls' Curtis said. "If a player hasn't been playing a lot with his team for the first six months, it presents an opportunity to bring a player from abroad."
One of the best additions to MLS in recent years came this way when Sebastian Giovinco transferred to Toronto FC from Juventus. In Serie A, the diminutive Italian forward found himself behind attacking talents including Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Morata, and struggled to find playing time under Massimiliano Allegri despite appearing for his national team.
In January 2015, he moved to MLS after TFC agreed to a reported multi-million-dollar transfer fee and a $7-million-per-year salary for the player. All he's done since is score 38 goals in 59 matches and win last season's MVP award. TFC also benefited from club struggles when it acquired Jozy Altidore in a trade with Sunderland for Jermain Defoe. Had either player shown more with his original club, the swap never would have happened.
For some, the problem with MLS and transfers is less about the calendar and more about the fact that the league's structure doesn't encourage teams to sell players. "The financial mechanisms don't incentivize clubs to move players," one agent said. In his eyes, while MLS teams and executives say they want to become an exporting league, the reality is that it rarely makes financial or sporting sense to sell a player.
In most cases, a team only receives two-thirds of the transfer fee, and even then it can be difficult to spend that money due to the salary cap restraints and other considerations. The agent feels that MLS franchises are reluctant to sell players for small profits, unlike many small clubs in Belgium and Scandinavia that rely on buying and selling players to sustain their teams on the field and their bottom lines off it.
"[Those clubs] aren't looking to buy for $100,000 and sell for $10 million," he said, adding that at least a few of his clients would have already been sold if they were playing in Scandinavia. But because they are in MLS, they haven't gone anywhere.
One thing is certain: MLS's relationship with transfers won't change quickly. The single-entity structure ensures teams will be limited in their ability to capitalize on a sale, and the calendar won't be altered dramatically in the near future (nor should it be). Executives in charge of personnel around the league say that in a perfect world, the season would run concurrently to Europe, but they also know that they need to figure out how to work in today's landscape.
"It's been this way for so long for us that we've just kind of adjusted and adapted," New England Revolution general manager Michael Burns said. "We're the ones that are a little bit different [compared to other leagues around the world]. I think it's normal and natural for us."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.