MLS and the Farm League Dilemma: Chivas USA versus New York Red Bulls

MLS now has its 20th franchise making New York the second major market city with two MLS teams, the first being Los Angeles with the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA.  The announcement of the deal that lead to the creation of NYCFC are fresh in summer minds and yet rumors still fly of further expansion farther south in Florida.  Most of the talk relates to David Beckham and his interest in starting a team, which he has the right to do at a reduced rate, thanks to a clause in his MLS contract.

Despite all the talk of David Beckham and his franchise hopes, minor discussion has popped up regarding interest from Argentine power house club Boca Juniors which can be traced back to 2011 reports from Boca senior officials talking to MLS.

With the exception of Beckham’s franchise and the Galaxy, every team mentioned above shares a common trait: They all have or would have, official ties to larger parent clubs in other countries.  Both New York teams, the New York Red Bulls and NYCFC, have European counterparts and partners in Red Bull Salzburg and Manchester City respectively.  Chivas USA is very openly an extension of the successful Mexican League outfit Chivas Guadalajara, and of course Boca Juniors would naturally count themselves among that group should any interest develop further into an actual bid for a franchise.

MLS and Don Garber would and have rolled out these partnerships in both style and rhetoric stating that they will help the league continue on its meteoric growth and that partnerships with these already established organizations can only have a positive effect on the league.  Looking at the amount of money that Manchester City’s owners have invested in the club, it’s easy to see how that argument can be valid, though the same enthusiasm was felt for Chivas when they become the 11th member of MLS in 2004.  Struggles with poor performances on the pitch as well as management, ownership, and legal issues have been plaguing the club recently with rumors creeping from Mexico that MLS hierarchy were set to step in and takeover the club.

At this stage of growth for soccer in the United States, the types of partnerships between established clubs and new franchises without a doubt raises the profile of MLS as well as the sport in general if nothing else for the visibility that the larger international clubs already garner.  Most of these clubs and more already maintain affiliations with youth clubs all over the United States including Boca’s Argentine rivals River Plate, and Manchester City’s Premier League rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.  All three clubs mentioned have affiliated themselves with successful youth clubs in the United States and certainly has raised the profile of the sport while also allowing for the movement of coaching ideas and development considerations.

For as positive as these ideas and partnerships are, fears persist that the existence of these types of affiliations will turn MLS into a feeder league for the rest of the world’s clubs which naturally would halt progression of the sport in the US entirely.

Claudio Reyna, former USMNT captain, Manchester City and Red Bull player and current NYCFC Director of Football has discussed that agreements are in place for the ability to bring Manchester City youth players on loan to the club before they’re ready for full integration to the Premier League with further rumors that Manchester City are using their sibling club as a potential bargaining chip incentive for player contract extensions like Gareth Barry’s.

These kinds of developments and revelations are naturally the foundation of fears that MLS clubs will turn into glorified farm teams for the world’s elite making MLS a fancy minor league system.  How this will develop is difficult to predict however what is interesting is that both current comparison clubs for this situation, New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA, offer distinctly different pictures of potential outcomes.

Keeping this comparison within a specified framework, it seems reasonable to argue that an indicator of a major international club using its MLS affiliate as a farm team would be a steady and large influx and outflow of players between the clubs.  Such activity could indicate that the MLS affiliate is being managed as an extension for players to receive first team playing experience.  Beyond that, repeat loanees and players brought into the MLS affiliate club from elsewhere and moving on to the partner are other potential indicators of the same conclusion.

Using www.transfermarkt.com, a website that compiles and lists player values and official club transfer activities worldwide, it becomes very simple to compare the two examples of major club affiliates.

The two clubs are on opposing ends of the affiliation spectrum with the Red Bulls on the end of standalone affiliation with almost no transfer activity.  There have been a total of two transfers between Red Bull Salzburg and the New York Red Bulls since Red Bulls took over the Metrostars franchise in 2006.  The first came in that first season under the Red Bull rebranding in Markus Schopp, and the second and final came only recently in this current MLS season in Ibrahim Sekagaya.  Both players moved from Salzburg to New York and both at the time of their transfers were 32 years old so it is safe to say, the moves were not made from a player development perspective.

Chivas USA on the other hand, since its inception in the league in 2004 has made a total of 19 transfers of 18 different players from Chivas in Guadalajara to Chivas USA and 11 player transfers from USA to Guadalajara.  Of the players transferred from Guadalajara to USA, only 4 of the 18 players were over the age of 23, with 5 players 20 and under, and 9 between the ages of 21 and 23.  The transfers were relatively spread out over the seasons but there were two heavy seasons in 2005 when 5 players came in and 2012 when 4 came in.

Moving on to transfers in the other direction, from USA to Guadalajara.  Since 2004, there have been a total of 11 transfers.  5 of the transfers occurred just in this past 2013 season leaving 6 players moving from Chivas USA south to Guadalajara over 8 years from 2004 to 2012.  An interesting note about all but 1 of the 11 transfers, they were all players who had moved originally form Guadalajara to Chivas USA.  The only exception is Carlos Borja, who signed with Chivas USA from the IMG Academy in Bradenton Fl. and transferred to Guadalajara, in 2007.  Borja eventually moved back to the Chivas USA outfit, only to move on to the USL team in Los Angeles, the LA Blues.

Without much analysis it is easy to see that one partnership has moved a number of youth players through the MLS affiliate and back to the other partner while the other partnership has seen almost no transfer activity at all over a similar time span.  This comparison does not look further than the age, timing and destination of transfers and has no context of reasoning behind the transfers so it is obviously a very limited view of the relationship however it does show both ends of the partnership spectrum.  An important note is that Red Bull Salzburg was rebranded by Red Bull in the same manner as the Metro Stars just a year before so the two are more contemporaries under the umbrella of Red Bull, who also went on to rebrand clubs in Germany, Ghana, and Brasil.  Chivas on the other hand has more of a parent-child relationship between Guadalajara and USA.

It is impossible to predict what will come of Manchester City’s involvement with NYCFC, or what will occur if any other major club decides to bid for an MLS franchise and successfully insert themselves and create an affiliate club.  Management and operations procedures change with every different club you go to, but what can be taken away from the comparison between the New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA is that relationship rhetoric between the original and affiliate clubs are important in understanding how the clubs will be interacting.  The potential to become a feeder club always exists when there’s a relationship with a bigger club in a bigger league, but indicators exist for seeing that type of relationship as it is occurring and ultimately it is up to Don Garber and MLS hierarchy to be able to step in should things get too out of hand.  The league needs partners, and bigger clubs in Europe and South America can provide those needed partnerships but what the MLS doesn’t need is a team who participates in MLS to tune up their youth players.  When that happens, competition fails, and ultimately, so could the league.

 

 

 

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