The XI Quarterly, a North American Soccer journal, published an article recently featuring an interview with Marco Garces who is head of scouting for Pachuca (link). In the interview, Garces brags about the cracks in the US soccer system and even about how easy it would be to pluck the LA Galaxy's star defender Omar Gonzalez.
"Omar Gonzalez, I spoke to him and he earns almost nothing. He can earn ten times what he earns here in Mexico. But if you want to buy him because they ask for millions and millions."
According to the MLS Player's Union Gonzalez earned a salary of $257,000 last year, so we're talking about $2.5 million. Transfer Market lists only one Pachuca player with a market value in the two million range (link) but this gets into Garces' next point.
But if you want to buy him because they ask for millions and millions. But if you say to a player, "don't sign" and they go for free to Mexico and earn a ton.
So the idea is that MLS' salaries are too low, but that they ask for too much in transfer fees. We saw with Brek Shea how MLS fought to get the transfer fee for Shea bumped up. We've heard the rumors that Gonzalez is looking to Europe with his next move, but it's possible the transfer fee MLS has put out there kept him from being sold.
That's a bit of a conundrum. The sale of Shea is being touted as this proof that MLS is developing desired talent, which it is, and we've seen the successful sale of several players over the past few years. However, if there are teams out there telling players to play out their contracts and then come make millions, everyone gets what they want except for MLS.
Of course, it could also be the case that MLS is setting it's price point specifically so that European clubs might bite but they won't loose as many players to Latin America. Does this put players at a disadvantage? We've seen a number of cases where players go over to Europe and then don't get any playing time. For a young player, this is a detriment to their development.
Gonzalez isn't the only player Garces mentions being interested in. Brek Shea made his list as did Kyle Beckerman and DaMarcus Beasley. We've seen Herculez Gomez and Jose Torres go down to Mexico and make a name for themselves.
Gomez played out his contract in MLS then signed freely with Puebla FC. Puebla not only got a multi-million dollar transfer fee for him but were paying him over a million (link). For every success story MLS has with selling players to Europe, there's a counter example of typically Mexican American players who walked away.
The main point of the interview was that the American soccer development system is so fragmented that it makes for easy pickings. Garces bragged about the fact that he can go to Galaxy U-20 practice and the team can't do anything to stop him. He goes to the Dallas Cup and similar events to scout young players.
There is a gap in MLS between the academy system and the teams themselves. Players can go all the way up through the academy system and graduate unattached. The numbers confirm the fact that the majority of the players developed in MLS academies will never be attached to their club via a contract.
If players aren't attached directly to an MLS club, then these scouts from Mexico and elsewhere don't have to buy them. They can simply be given a competing offer. That's not even thinking about the thousands of players in the NCAA system unattached until the combine.
This is a think piece, I don't have the answers. Is MLS doing a good enough job to ensure top talent wishing to play elsewhere is sold and doesn't simply walk away? Is MLS properly protecting the players they develop from being poached by other leagues? Are MLS rosters too small?
Should Omar Gonzalez walk away from the LA Galaxy after his contract is up, should A.J. DeLaGarza follow suit, that would be quite unfortunate. Christian Wilhelmsson and David Beckham, why were they let go on free transfers? MLS should be letting talent simply walk away.
Of course, I'd hate to imply this is a problem only in MLS. One only has to look at Frank Lampard's situation at Chelsea to know it's not always possible to come to an agreement between player and club. It's still a question worth asking, is MLS' system the most efficient for keeping young talent and recouping investment on developed talent?