MLS was not conceived as an export league. Though MLS has earned more than $30 million from transferring players since 1996, the deals have been done in spite of the league's built-in resistance to the idea.
Recently, MLS has made rules changes to provide more money for teams losing players to transfers. MLS sold two players (Freddy Adu and Clint Dempsey) for a total of $6 million last year, a league record for a calendar year. And MLS will likely exceed that total that this month with the transfer of Eddie Johnson (who had a trigger clause in his contract requiring the league to move him for an offer of a minimum $3.5 million) to Fulham and attempted moves of Brad Guzan and Taylor Twellman.
But, from a competitive standpoint, it is not in MLS teams' interest to transfer a player, especially a goal-scorer. The recent failure of Preston North End's $3 million bid for Twellman provides an example.
The deal would have been in Preston's interest both competitively (it needs a goal scorer) and financially ($3 million is a bargain on the open market). It would have been beneficial for Twellman, his salary tripling, his career reaching new horizons in England.
But the Revolution could not afford lose Twellman from a competitive viewpoint. Here's why. Of the transfer fee, the Revolution would have received two-thirds and MLS one-third. So, the Revolution would have gained about $1.7 million, only $500,000 of which could have been used for an allocated player. That makes it very difficult to find a replacement of equal value to Twellman. A league official noted the Revolution could have applied to use more than $500,000 toward bringing in a player. But the odds (and the economics) would have been against the Revolution bringing in another proven goal scorer on short notice. The FIFA-mandated transfer window closes at the end of January, and European clubs with plenty of money to spend are also looking for goal scorers.
The economics of the Twellman deal would have been positive for MLS, at least in the short run.
In order to generate $3 million this year, the Revolution would have to sell 200,000 tickets at $15 each. That equates to 13,333 more fans per game, kicking up the Revolution's average attendance to 28,000 per game for 15 home games. Obviously, getting rid of Twellman was more likely to harm attendance than help it.
And MLS is in this for the long run, fortunately. The Revolution needs Twellman not only for his goals but also for the image he projects as the face of the team.
The MLS Cup finalists the last two seasons, the Revolution and Houston Dynamo, have failed to recruit a designated player, or even a high-profile foreigner, in the last two years. One top-level player does not solve all the problems of a soccer team. And, potentially, a high-priced import can create difficulties by changing the dynamics of the team's pay scale and the locker room camaraderie.
It has not been worth it to either the Dynamo or Revolution to tamper with a successful formula.
Let's say a Premiership club offered Dempsey-type money ($4 million) for Twellman. Though Twellman does not have a trigger clause in his contract, the Revolution would be compelled to let him go. Then what? The Revolution offers $500,000 for a striker who would command at least triple that amount elsewhere? The Revolution tried that last year with Robbie Fowler. Had the Revolution matched Cardiff City's offer for Fowler, he would have been in the DP salary range. And that could have been disruptive, especially with Shalrie Joseph disputing his contract.
Transfer dealings with MLS teams are not like dealings elsewhere. The Dempsey sale to Fulham shows why. Dempsey's play was essential to Fulham remaining in the Premiership last year, his goal against Liverpool more than justifying the transfer fee. But would an MLS team have paid $4 million for Dempsey? Not likely. MLS teams do not have to worry about relegation and, as good as Dempsey is, he was not going to bring in an extra 13,333 spectators per game.
Right now, MLS is simply not on the same transfer page with the top leagues.
But that might have to change, and soon.
Twellman is understandably frustrated and feels he is being denied a lucrative employment opportunity.
And, by not getting in the transfer game, the MLS is missing out. If Chris Gbandi is transfered from FC Dallas to Haugesund in Norway, as expected, this week, he will be the 10th MLS player to move to Europe this month, following Bryan Arguez (Hertha Berlin), Andy Dorman (St. Mirren), Clarence Goodson (IK Start), Nate Jaqua (SC Rheindorf Altach), Clint Mathis (Ergotelis FC), Joseph Ngwenya (SK Austria Karnten), Pat Noonan (Aalesund FK), Troy Perkins (Valerenga) and Johnson. Of those players, only Johnson produced a significant transfer fee, and Dorman, Goodson, Jaqua, Mathis, Ngwenya and Noonan departed on free transfers.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.