Any time a team in Major League Soccer has a promising young player — and teams pretty much all do these days — a game is more than just a chance to win. It’s a chance to put that young player in a shop window for foreign teams that want to buy him.
When the Union and Sporting Kansas City meet Thursday in a MLS tournament quarterfinal at Disney World (8 p.m., ESPN and ESPN Deportes), the lights in the window will be as bright as the ones over the field.
McKenzie, Aaronson, and Busio have been big-time prospects for a while. But the attention earned during the MLS tournament feels different. It’s not just the national TV coverage of every game. Like with college basketball recruiting, when scouts want to see film, they’ll find it. And it’s not the Disney stage, because scouts can’t be in the bubble. The feeling is more intangible — the difference between a tournament and a regular-season’s grind. Even though this event was concocted to get around a pandemic, it’s got a certain spark.
“In terms of the hype around our players, it’s real,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday. “There’s a lot of reports and media covering some of our top players [and] there’s been a lot of interest from teams from overseas. … Their talent is certainly there, and if they continue to play the way they do, I’m sure some real concrete offers will come in for them.”
Kansas City manager Peter Vermes concurred and didn’t try to hide the foreign interest in Busio, an 18-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., who turned pro three years ago. Busio was the youngest player to turn pro in MLS since Freddy Adu did so as a 14-year-old in 2004.
“I think there’s no doubt that there’s a lot of scouts around the world that are watching our league,” said Vermes, a Delran native. “Especially certain players and certain teams. The Philadelphia Union is one of them, and I know that you guys have seen probably a lot of reports around Busio.”
It helps that most of the big European leagues are in the middle of summer hiatus. Their breaks are shorter than usual because of the havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, but German clubs in particular have had plenty of time to scout since their season ended a month ago. And no league has more thriving Americans — or more teams able to find the next ones — than the Bundesliga.
The Union and Sporting have strong links to the German scene. Union sporting director Ernst Tanner made his name at Hoffenheim and in the Red Bull empire, whose flagship team in Leipzig is in the Champions League quarterfinals. Sporting technical director Brian Bliss played in Germany from 1990 until 1996, when he came home to help launch MLS.
When the time is right, the teams will sell. The Union have long yearned to do so with their academy products. And they don’t mind letting their players say publicly that they’d like to go to Europe some day.
“It’s always a blessing to be able to draw interest from clubs in Europe,” McKenzie said. “As a kid, you dream of playing at the top clubs in the world — playing in top leagues and in [the] Champions League and whatnot.”
But for now, he has other priorities.
“Right now, I’m just focused on helping the team and ultimately keeping clean sheets, because as a defender that’s my main priority,” he said, “and ultimately helping Philly get this win, [then] move on to the final and bring silverware back home.”
Thursday: Union vs. Sporting Kansas City, 8 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
Friday: Orlando City vs. Los Angeles FC, 7:30 p.m. (FS1, UniMás, TUDN)
Saturday: San Jose Earthquakes vs. Minnesota United, 8 p.m. (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes); New York City FC vs. Portland Timbers, 10:30 p.m. (FS1, UniMás, TUDN)