Signing elite internationals too complicated for Revolution and other MLS teams

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Some wanted to go with younger prospects. Others weren’t concerned about a youth movement, but thought Benteke might have been age-cheating — he was 31 when negotiations began.
The Revolution are not the only MLS team that had doubts about Christian Benteke when he was shopped to the league in 2022. Everyone had their reasons.
Benteke, judging by his hat trick performance Saturday in D.C. United’s 3-1 win over the Revolution, is not a player who requires much back and forth if you want to sign him, especially considering no transfer fee was involved. His price was upward of $3 million in salary, take it or leave it. Wayne Rooney, D.C. United’s coach at the time, did not need much convincing, having competed against Benteke in the Premier League.
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So, with no other takers to contend with, United made the deal.
It took a while for Benteke’s United teammates to figure him out, but now that they realize he can win nearly everything in the air, at age 33 he should have a chance to challenge for a scoring title. Last season, Benteke totaled 14 goals, tied for seventh in the league. He should top that number this time around, but even if not, he will cause havoc in opposing defenses and teammates should be able to capitalize.
Meanwhile, the Revolution were among the teams going for younger forwards two years ago. Giacomo Vrioni seemed to fit the bill, having developed in Italy with Juventus, then proving himself in Austria. But things have not clicked for Vrioni with the Revolution, partly because former coach Bruce Arena did not seem convinced.
Vrioni had six goals last season and appeared to be turning the corner with Arena via a hat trick in the Leagues Cup, but that turned out to be Arena’s final game in charge. Since then, Vrioni has looked like someone trying to make up for lost time, and overeagerness led to a 25th-minute red card against United. Playing with a man disadvantage, the Revolution were doomed, though Carles Gil equalized with an extraordinary finish in the second half.
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Gil, by the way, teamed with Benteke at Aston Villa, and the pair remain close. That was a connection the Revolution might have capitalized on two years ago, though in their defense the team already had Gustavo Bou, similar in age to Benteke. So, what would have been wrong with having Benteke and Bou, along with Vrioni, Justin Rennicks, and Bobby Wood, on the roster? Nothing. Except the league’s three Designated Player limit rule got in the way.
Additionally, the Revolution forward line included Jozy Altidore. That would have meant about $10 million in salary going to strikers. As first divisions go, a roster with six forwards earning a total of $10 million is unremarkable. But MLS caps and restrictions make that number untenable. The Revolution might have been able to work something out, perhaps an exception from the league (again, $10 million for five players is not excessive in first division soccer), along with buying out Altidore (which they ended up doing a few months later, anyway). But that would have been complicated.
And that is a problem for MLS.
Last week, Apple executive Eddy Cue advised the league to “sign some more [star] players,” but the problem is MLS rules make it difficult to do so. High-profile standouts the world over would like to give MLS a try, partly because they view the United States as exotic, but simply cannot be expected to take a major pay cut. Even should they be willing to sacrifice, their agents draw the line.
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There are other considerations.
Yes, MLS provides the potential for marketing a player via shirt sales, but most soccer players just want the cash (plus incentive bonuses). And, yes, Lionel Messi turned down more than $1 billion from the Saudis to sign with Inter Miami, with Apple throwing in some spare change. But, no, MLS does not want to get into bidding wars with the Saudis — or anyone, for that matter.
That is among the founding principles of the league. When the league started in 1996, nobody wanted to overpay for talent, via salaries or the transfer market. And for good reason, considering the history of professional soccer leagues in the country.
Now, though, MLS is in a transition period. There are plenty of new investors that want to scrap the acronyms (Young DPs, GAM, TAM, etc.) and simplify signing procedures. They are fine with a salary cap, though that needs to increase. But they want the freedom to do what they please with the budget, and be able to pay a few exceptional players outside the cap.
These owners have expressed frustration regarding the tight purse strings, though seldom publicly. It seems a matter of time before the Apple folks figure out the problem.
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The red tape that gets in the way of potential MLS high-level signings often means negotiations go nowhere. Also, the combination of anti-competitive policies, plus excessive bureaucracy, leads to inertia. Most of the time, nobody hears about the players MLS is missing out on. But if you talk to agents you get the idea the league is missing out on quite a few impact performers.
Put it this way: Signing Benteke seems like a no-brainer now.
But a couple years ago, nobody in MLS believed in Benteke, and if they did, regulations prevented them from acquiring him. If not for Rooney happening to land in D.C. in July 2022, Benteke would not have joined MLS, and only a few people would have known what happened and why.
Boston Globe Today: Sports | February 23, 2024 Share WATCH: Friday’s show. Stories include: Is the next face of the NBA up for grabs? And, why host Chris Gasper thinks the Red Sox’s direction won’t change soon.
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at frankdellapa@gmail.com.

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