MLS doesn’t know what it wants to be.
It doesn’t. Not really, anyway. On one hand, you had Don Garber talking about the league being among the best in the world by 2022, back 5-6 years ago – back when 2022 seemed like a long time away. Although you don’t hear him stating it as directly any longer (and he learned his lesson by not giving hard dates, no matter how far away it seems), the league still very much speaks with a confidence about its future (in a way that is a little hard to understand as times).
At the same time as MLS is making that kind of noise, it’s also talking about how it wants to become a selling league. That goal seems a little more doable as, outside of the UEFA Champions League suddenly and inexplicably inviting the MLS champion to take part, no league outside Europe is going to come close to being a “top” league in the world any time soon. However, if you constantly sell your best young players then it’s a little hard to convince fans – particularly more casual fans used to watching Big Four North American leagues – that you are worthwhile.
All that leads to MLS being ambivalent about what direction it should go in. Although the league has been willing to sell more of late, it’s still noteworthy when a player moves on. Less so when it’s a prospect like Alphonso Davies, who quite clearly needed to go to a higher level, than with a more established players, but those moves still make noise around the league.
We’ve seen a few such moves this off-season, with Philadelphia sending both Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson off to Europe. Significant moves that speak to the Union, at least, fully buying in to the idea that they are there to sell. These were both contributing players to the Supporter’s Shield winners and their loss will affect the balance of power in the East.
For the most part the moves by the Union are being talked about in a positive way by media and engaged fans. Whether the causal fans of Philadelphia will be as excited when the Union drop down the Eastern Conference standings next year remains to be seen.
However, the biggest challenge to the selling philosophy might be about to come.
Over the weekend, reports started to surface linking Seattle forward Jordan Morris to a move to Swansea. It would be a loan move, with an option to buy in 6-months.
This one is interesting on a couple different fronts. Unlike McKenzie and Aaronson, where their youth made a move seem inevitable and who went to clubs with a history of “selling up,” Morris is an established MLS star in his prime.
It’s harsh, but at 26, Morris is never going to attract the interest of a world elite club. He just isn’t – had he skipped college and gone to Europe (or even started in MLS earlier) then maybe he might have, but the boat has sailed now. He will never be a bigger star for his club than he is now, in Seattle and MLS.
Swansea isn’t buying Morris on speculation to sell on. Rather, they are looking to bring in a player that will help them now and who, hopefully, can establish himself as a regular player for them. This would be his ceiling in Europe.
Sure, Swansea could scrape itself back into the Premier League (they are presently in second in the Championship) and then battle around the relegation zone, but this is not a sexy move. One cannot escape the blunt truth that a MLS “superstar” (in context he is – based on Whoscored stats, Morris was the top ranked American player in the league last season), in his prime, can only attract the interest of a Championship club. The league gets no bounce from this and one of its marquee teams is left with a significant hole to fill.
This is not to say that Morris shouldn’t do it. I’d respect him if he did, as he has a very comfortable situation in Seattle and he’s well compensated. Testing himself in Europe while potentially getting a cup of coffee in the Premier League is something he should want to do. And, even if Swansea doesn’t go up, the Championship is, in my opinion, a higher level of play than MLS. So, good on him if he steps outside his comfort zone and goes.
If I worked in the Seattle Sounders ticket office I might think differently, but if MLS truly does want to go down the route of a selling league then losing players like Morris is something we all will need to get used to.
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