Atlanta United’s in-progress training facility loomed over the start of its first MLS season like a giant gleaming Death Star. At $60 million it promised to be the single most impressive complex in the entire league, and it was to be shared by both the first team and the academy.
In 2016, FC Dallas’ payroll became one of the deepest signifiers in history of what it is to succeed in a capped league. Or at least one of the avenues.
In both base salary and total guaranteed compensation, FC Dallas was the cheapest team in the league in 2016 by the time the first salary dump was released that May. In fact, in total compensation FC Dallas spent almost a full $1 million less than anyone else in all of MLS. Fronting a small ball approach that values homespun Homegrowns and value buys on the South American transfer market, all FC Dallas did was snare a Supporter’s Shield/U.S. Open Cup double. Taking into account the relative crapshoot that is the MLS postseason, the SS is probably the most coveted (and hardest to win) trophy in the league.
At the center of FC Dallas’ rewriting of the formula – the club has essentially stood long-held notions of free spending on their head – is Fernando Clavijo, the club’s transfer market guru. At the head of a small group of well-connected staffers, Clavijo’s worn thin the path to nations like Colombia, Argentina and Brazil in an effort to woo top young players to Frisco. And by and large, the formula’s worked.
I recently sat down with Clavijo to mine into arguably the most distinct and successful build model in the league’s history. How does he approach players? When he does, what’s their general perception on MLS? How has it changed? And if he had a magic wand, how much more money does he want to compete with the best of the best in all the Americas?
That and more in our Q&A.
There is something that happens to an organization that loses its succession plan to the buffeting winds of change. Posterity is the only real judge.
The Mongol Empire grew outward almost unfettered for nearly 50 years, from the time Genghis rode over Khwarezm and China to Mongke’s conquests of the Middle East and South Asia. But the undercurrent of power is swift, and without an obvious successor Mongke’s younger brothers, Ariq Boke and an ingenue named Kublai, waged a civil war for four years. Called the Toluid Civil War, the melee permanently fractured the Mongolian empire, and while it would have years of success to come, it never again reached the height of its power, divided as it was.
There is something to this in the current state of affairs in Sandy. Jeff Cassar was hired on as an imperial continuation in 2014 with the exit of his spiritual soccer kin, Jason Kreis, and more or less asked to continue carrying the same torch into darkened corridors in perhaps subtly different ways. Kreis, ever the taskmaster, would never fully jive with the more people-pleasing Cassar, but the men were wedded at the medulla on issues of franchise: building through the academy, scouting South America for smart if not pricey buys, staying within your means.
If you’re been spinning your wheels through the American soccer mud patch at all over the last few years, you’ve probably run into Steve Fenn’s data visuals at one point or another. He’s been on the leading edge of MLS statistical analysis as the league’s grown into its most modern iteration, and he just dropped a lovely piece of work on our doorstep for perusal.
As those of us who’ve spent any time cruising through the at-times confusing MLS Homegrown landscape well understand, it can be a thorny business to digest exactly how it all fits in together. Which is where Fenn’s latest visualization comes into play.
Every MLS Homegrown dropped neatly into a tidy roster package? Yes and please.
Look, I’m not going to spend a whole lot of preamble on this. There were a lot of Roman emperors. There are 22 MLS head coaches. These are those emperors as MLS head coaches. Let’s party.
You don’t need any real experience or knowledge on any particular thing to have a deeply felt opinion on it. It helps, mainly in things like reputability and fact-based reasoning and just the general sanity of those within earshot at any given time, but modernity itself allows for this. And we allow for it, generally, by clinging to those of our own. I’ve never actually watched The Princess Bride, and yet I’ve gone through my entire adult life convinced beyond reason itself it is a tragically overrated piece of work. I have no idea how I got here.
This is more or less the story of today’s MLS. I once not too long ago had a conversation with a gentleman who argued Jason Kreis could definitively not handle the rigors of the USMNT job because he was an MLS stooge, and MLS is where goodness goes to die (my words, his mouth). When pressed, he had no idea where Kreis coached or any particular compass as to who he was. But dammit, the second you mention MLS credentials, he is garbage my son.
You could see almost immediately what Sporting KC saw in the kid. His movement was fluid to the point of liquidity, and he had the gilded touch in and around the area SKC fans grew so accustomed to with Dom Dwyer. The crowds were always sparse, of course, because academy soccer is more of a utilitarian device than a spectator sport. But he routinely wowed those in attendance anyway.
His name is Daniel Salloi. SKC U18 coach Istvan Urbanyi unearthed the fellow Hungarian abroad in 2014, and he quickly became one of the most lethal scorers in the Development Academy after moving Stateside and joining SKC. He scored 21 goals his first season in the DA, then signed a Homegrown deal in 2016 and spent the rest of the year playing for Swope Park Rangers in the USL. He scored a few tidy goals last year, and an impressive preseason with the first team in 2017 launched his career into a new orbit. Whatever comes next for the 20-year-old, Salloi appears earmarked for first team minutes in Overland Park.
Alphonso Davies is 16 years old. So we start there.
The specifics of my life at that age are muddled over time, but fending off contracts worth many thousands of dollars was not in my personal equation. If it had been, it would’ve been a confusing cocktail to dump into a story already confused enough as it was. At least on a personal level, no 16-year-old has any idea what they’re doing, other than blithely careening through life as one does. Pushing Grown Man decisions onto those feeble-enough shoulders is not ideal.
I want you to paint a mental picture. There is a balance scale. On one end, a European academy in one of the continent’s Top Five leagues. On the other, an MLS academy. Now imagine an MLS-reared academy prospect with interest from both dropping the two onto the opposing end of the scale. What happens?
Two primary competing interests are local allegiance and familiarity versus the prestige of perhaps one day playing in the Champions League. This tips the scales in one direction or another depending on the personality. There is no right answer to this particular question. Either you want to develop at home, in front of family, or you want a fresh angle at first team minutes. Both can develop high quality national teamers. A young player can perhaps develop more completely in Europe, but how can you be sure that’s the case in every case? To put it simply, you can’t.
The one area, however, where MLS will lose on the scales every time? Money.