- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

Though it may have stumbled at times, Major League Soccer continues to make money selling players overseas.

This week MLS sold World Cup star and Columbus Crew forward Brian McBride to English Premier League club Fulham for an estimated $1.5million transfer fee. McBride was a charter MLS player in 1996. His fee may not sound like much in America’s billion-dollar sports market, but in a league in which the salary cap for a whole team is a mere $1.7million, the cash is welcome.

Meanwhile, there are reports that San Jose Earthquakes star Landon Donovan could be heading to EPL club Portsmouth on a loan in the next few days. The 21-year-old forward has one year left on his loan to MLS from Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen.

Last year MLS, which owns all player contracts, cut its biggest deal when it sold MetroStars goalie Tim Howard to Manchester United for $3.6million. Before the Howard move, the league earned revenue from selling a number of players, most notably Shaun Bartlett ($1.3million) to F.C. Zurich; Brad Friedel ($1.3million) to Liverpool; Stern John ($3million) to Nottingham Forest; and Eddie Lewis ($2million) to Fulham.

“There have been a few transfers that have generated some dollars, but I don’t think that has been the goal of MLS,” U.S. team coach Bruce Arena said.

From its beginning, MLS saw selling players as an opportunity to make money.

“MLS believes that it will quickly become a net exporter — in economic terms — of players to international leagues,” stated the league’s blueprint in 1993.

Said D.C. United president and CEO Kevin Payne: “It’s not our objective to sell players overseas, but in the last three years the league has substantially exceeded its budget from that revenue stream. We did lose a couple of guys, Clint [Mathis] and [Carlos] Bocanegra. That will always happen. Some players will always try and go [free agent].”

Bocanegra, the league’s defender of the year whose contract expired last month, joined Fulham last week, and three days ago Sports Illustrated cover boy Mathis signed with Hannover 96 in Germany. MLS didn’t earn a dime on either deal.

“They were offered generous contracts, but it’s a lot easier to move when you are free,” Arena said.

In early 2002, Mathis was hot property and looked like he could earn the league a record transfer fee from German giant Bayern Munich, but MLS held on to the World Cup star in a sluggish transfer market. Then Mathis hit a slump, and no team made a serious bid. Payne said Bayern offered less than $1million for Mathis, but MLS thought he was worth much more.

MLS also has spent big money on players who didn’t have the expected impact. Perhaps the biggest blooper was the $4million spent on Mexican star Luis Hernandez, who played only 30 games for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Last year the league paid $800,000 to bring Korean defender Hong Myung Bo to the Galaxy, but the World Cup star hasn’t drawn the expected fans from the Korean community.

The league also has suffered some bad luck. Nottingham Forest was eager to buy United midfielder Ben Olsen for an estimated $2million in February 2001, but MLS played hardball, and a few weeks later Olsen sustained a serious ankle injury. Last year United’s Bobby Convey looked set to join the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur for $2million, but at the last minute he was denied a work permit.

Get ready to see more players head for bigger paychecks.

“We’ll have some tough choices to make this summer on some young players,” Payne said. “We will have to decide whether we want to sell or offer them new deals.”

Convey certainly looks like one of those youngsters who is destined to go overseas. The 20-year-old starred in the U.S. team’s 1-1 tie with Denmark recently, and no doubt clubs in Europe are viewing the game tape.

United officials will talk with Convey in March about a long-term deal, but Payne said, “If he’s going to end up getting [overseas] offers anyway, [the talks may not] make sense.”

MLS’s biggest transfer could come in June 2007 when a big club steps up to buy Freddy Adu, who will then turn 18.

Note — Local star Brian West, a graduate of Centennial High School in Columbia, Md., has signed a two-year deal with Norwegian Second Division team Fredrickstad. West, 27, played with the Columbus Crew from 1998 to 2003.

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