Union owner Jay Sugarman is ready to buy players, and also sell them
"We can't afford to make mistakes," Jay Sugarman said, adding that fans should "hold us accountable" for deals that become busts.
Union majority owner Jay Sugarman has made it clear time and again that he won't spend big sums on big-name players. That path might not be preferable, and fans don't have to like it. But just for a moment, ask this question: What can you get on the kind of budget that the Union have?
For as much as spending in MLS has grown in recent times, you can still get a very good player.
Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino came to MLS as a 20-year-old on loan from his native Venezuela for $376,000. He parlayed a strong season into a national team debut and a full contract from RSL.
Toronto FC midfielder Victor Vázquez earns $700,000, one-tenth of star forward Sebastian Giovinco's salary. Vázquez's playmaking skills earned him a place on this season's Best XI, and earned TFC the best regular-season points total in MLS history,
Montreal Impact wing wizard Ignacio Piatti, a perennial MVP candidate, earned a paltry $450,000 this year. This year's MVP, Portland's Diego Valeri, made $605,000 in 2016 before getting a big raise last winter.
(It's worth disclaiming that those numbers come from the MLS Players Union. There have been urban legends about some foreign players making more than what's listed. The numbers above are what's on the record, so they're used here.)
The Union's track record in bargain-hunting has been spotty, but the successes have been memorable.
Remember Fernando Aristeguieta? He was also the right kind of signing: a young striker with size and skill. Had injuries not derailed him, he might have been worth keeping.
You can even go back to 2010, the Union's inaugural season. Colombian playmaker Roger Torres had immense potential as an 18-year-old. But the Union didn't develop him well, and he was a casualty of the Peter Nowak scandal.
These days, sporting director Earnie Stewart picks the players. Sugarman said in a recent interview that he gives Stewart wide latitude.
But he doesn't stay out of the way entirely.
"I do make sure, whatever they do, that it makes sense, that it's on strategy, that they've really thought it through," Sugarman said. "We have been, as ownership, willing to spend … but we want to make sure the homework is done."
Sugarman acknowledged, as did Stewart a few weeks ago, that the scouting process has been stalled by not knowing how much targeted allocation money (TAM) will be available to teams this winter.
There have been reports that the TAM fund could increase dramatically this winter, potentially by as much as $2 million per team. But nothing has been confirmed, and front offices across MLS are frustrated about it. The Union are no exception.
"We're getting to the point in the year where the technical staffs need definitive answers," Sugarman said. "I would expect that's in the relatively near future."
The increase in TAM could be at owners' discretion, which is to say teams would have to purchase the budget space. Sugarman didn't confirm whether that will be so, or whether he'd make the purchase. But he did speak bluntly on a related subject.
"We can't afford to make mistakes," he said. "That's probably the key component: When we make a decision, we have to really believe it, we have to have studied it, we have to know it's right, and then do everything in our power to make it work."
He said fans "should see some players coming in who fit this strategy."
And he added: "If they don't, hold us accountable."
Union fans would like very much to hold Sugarman accountable for the signing of English striker Jay Simpson last winter. Simpson was the team's most expensive signing this year, but his salary was a little more than $508,000. When the Englishman arrived, Stewart hailed him as "somebody whose alarm bells go off when we get into the 18-yard box."
He scored just one goal in 22 appearances.
With nearly $3 million cleared off the payroll this winter, the Union have a lot of money with which to work. Sugarman has given Stewart "significantly more resources … than he's ever had, and we want him to spend it," Sugarman said.
That spending might not be only on salaries. Transfer fees also could be a factor, and a significant one.
The Union have rarely spent on transfer fees. The $1 million outlay for Alejandro Bedoya in 2016 is the team record. Contrast that with the $3 million Portland to purchase Valeri's rights in 2013 after initially signing him on loan.
Sugarman seems ready to raise his bar. He framed it through the lens of MLS' rule book, though, instead of his own checkbook.
"The league has got a number of initiatives that they will roll out, I think through the next couple of years, that are going to allow the players who come here to be the highest-caliber players," he said. "There shouldn't be artificial restraints on that."
It's news that one of MLS' most spendthrift owners called for a removal of "artificial restraints." But he tempered the sentiment a moment later.
"The league is built on trying to find that balance between continuing to grow as an organization while also putting a better and better quality product on the field," he said. "We have to come up with mechanisms that allow us to be competitive."
One important mechanism already exists: selling young players developed by the academy and investing the profit in the first team.
As a rule, MLS takes a percentage of the transfer fee when its clubs sell players abroad.
As a principle, the league has a history of not wanting to sell players unless they command big sums and big headlines.
Many observers would like the league to loosen the reins. The logic goes that some foreign teams don't deal with MLS as much as they could because the league draws too hard a line on sales. If the league would sell more often — and perhaps for less money in the short term — buyers would come back with bigger checks in the future.
Change might be coming. FourFourTwo.com reported recently that the league is ready to allow clubs to keep 100 percent of transfer fees from selling homegrown players. That would likely spur teams to sell more. Teams with many homegrown players, such as the Union, would benefit immensely.
"If you're building a youth development strategy, you're counting on people recognizing the quality of talent that you create, and hopefully paying for that talent and development," Sugarman said. "That's certainly going to be part of our future: trying to develop very-high-quality players who, if they don't play for us, we are able to create a significant transfer fee and use that to continue to upgrade the rest of the team."
Of course, the word significant is subjective. But given the Union's clear need for cash to help compete with higher-spending rivals, selling players could be a big piece of the puzzle. As such, Sugarman's willingness to sell should be seen as a good thing.
Now it's up to the team to make sure its prospects turn into pros worth real money.