Last weekend, I watched TSN’s The Reporters for the first time in ages. To my pleasant surprise, Cathal Kelly, sports columnist for The Globe and Mail and journalistic idol of mine, was one of the roundtable panelists.
Kelly can come up with a witty Toronto FC insult faster than Usain Bolt can run the 100-metre dash. But even he had particularly harsh words for Frank Lampard and Major League Soccer following Lampard’s contract debacle, which will see Lampard stay in England until July, not until January as originally advertised.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a small league. There is something wrong with being a small-minded one,” Kelly said in a way that suggested that Don Garber was holding the camera and Mark Abbott was operating the soundboard.
I don’t disagree with Kelly one bit. To say that over 11,000 good-hearted New Yorkers got thoroughly and utterly duped would be an understatement.
But in the week since Kelly made his views clear on national television, MLS has done a surprisingly good job of proving that the Lampard signing is a blip on the radar. With the signings of Mix Diskerud, Jozy Altidore, and the rumoured-to-be-announced Monday or Tuesday Sebastian Giovinco, MLS might not be so small-minded after all.
MLS’ “we’re not as dumb as you think we are” message was first broadcast to the masses this past Tuesday, with the announcement that New York City FC had signed Mikkel “Mix” Diskerud, a member of the United States’ 2014 World Cup roster.
Diskerud, 24, had seen his contract with Norwegian side Rosenborg BK expire at the end of the Tippeligaen season in November. Rumours suggested that he would be staying in Europe, potentially going to a club as big as Scottish giants Celtic. But those rumours then shifted to Mexico, with Club Tijuana emerging as the favourites for Diskerud’s signature.
But then New York City FC came calling. And by some combination of wanting to attract a lot of attention, earning a lot of money, and getting to wear “Mix” on the back of his shirt, he decided to come Stateside.
(Mix jersey tweet)
But in all seriousness, this is taking the Ichiro Suzuki treatment to a new level of oddity. If any MLS club is ever in the market for an emergency call-up, I fully expect to see “The Nortonator” on the back of my kit.
Perhaps the largest-minded aspect of the Diskerud deal is the fact that he won’t occupy a Designated Player slot on NYCFC’s roster. Which, for somebody who not once (Portland in January 2013), but twice (Columbus this past summer), decided not to come to MLS because the money wasn’t good enough, is rather impressive. It probably left NYCFC with next to no allocation money in reserve. But these days New York blue will take their victories, especially off-field ones, as often as they can.
The message shifted from “we’re not as dumb as you think” to “we know how to get our money’s worth” by Friday, when Toronto FC announced they had acquired Diskerud’s USMNT teammate Jozy Altidore from Sunderland. Toronto is also believed to have acquired some money from Sunderland as part of the deal that sent divisive star forward Jermain Defoe back to England.
In bringing back yet another domestic star (13 of the 23 players named to the U.S. World Cup roster now play in MLS), MLS demonstrated brilliant asset management. Defoe, 32, scored eleven goals in the 2014 MLS season despite only appearing in 19 of 34 matches due to injury and what many will call a lack of interest. His performances in North America had likely peaked, and yet five or six relegation-threatened Premier League sides were thought to be in the market for his services.
From a buyer’s perspective, a guy with over 100 Premier League goals who could help keep your Premier League status safe doesn’t come around very often. From a seller’s perspective, Toronto FC had a bidding war on their hands and were able to name their price.
Altidore, seven years Defoe’s junior, was a very good MLS player as a teenager. He comes back to North America with two World Cups under his belt and his best friend in Michael Bradley playing behind him. On paper, this move is a 10/10 for Toronto and MLS.
Sebastian Giovinco is an 11.
The soon-to-be-announced signing of the 27-year-old Italian midfielder is nothing short of a ground breaker. Expected to arrive in July, Giovinco will have a season and a half of MLS experience before his 30th birthday, which is unheard of for big-name European imports.
David Beckham and Thierry Henry didn’t play in MLS until they were 32. Robbie Keane debuted at 31. Steven Gerrard won’t suit up for the Galaxy until he’s 35. Lampard won’t take the pitch in MLS until he’s (gulp) 37.
What might be more impressive is the fact that Giovinco was being pursued by clubs like Arsenal, Tottenham, and Monaco.
Just to confirm, Monaco was pursuing Giovinco as a replacement for the attacking midfielder they lost during the summer. You know, this guy.
To summarize, Toronto FC won the signature of an in-his-prime attacking midfielder. And they beat out some of the top clubs in the world in the process.
How should we react to this brilliant news? How about this?
MLS and its clubs are still small-minded to some extent. Ask fans on either side of New York. But if nothing else, this past week has shown signs of hope. The goal of being among the best leagues in the world by the early 2020s is still in mind.
It will take a lot more weeks like these for MLS to get there. But at least the journey is underway.
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