Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lucas Melano, and Why He's Wrong for MLS and the Timbers

Yes, Number 175. No, just Number 175.
Thought I'd try something different today; I mean as opposed to retching out every last thought I have on some aspect of the Portland Timbers' strengths, weaknesses, limitations, or awful goddamn haircuts (hey, at least we're better than the New England Revolution – e.g. Major League Soccer's #1 coiffurial shit-show), until I'm on the floor dry-heaving, I thought I'd try a genuinely single-subject(-ish) observation. I have dreams of going brief and more frequent, but that requires listening to the little boy who lives in my mouth (Randall*) when he tells me that, yes, I really can leave out that sentence I just fell in love with, or that paragraph that, for whatever reason, I that I think is the skeleton key that unlocks the Rosetta Stone (NOTE: not how that happened at all).

(*There's Judy, too, obviously. I'm just not sure who she is yet, or where she lives.)

At any rate, exploring a single topic today – e.g., how signing a player Lucas Melano doesn't make sense under the MLS salary model.

While this has been kicking around my head for a week or so, I'd like to begin by giving credit to this week’s Portland Timbros' podcast for refining the argument. The relevant part came with the discussion of how the presence designated player shapes, or even outright warps, the game-day roster. That part of the argument only hits my point on Melano sideways, but, y'know, credit where it's due.

I'd also like to make clear that nothing predictive, condemnatory (well, I'll be, that is a word) on Melano as a player informs this position. One of the first unwritten rules of MLS is that All Players Will Require Time to Adjust to MLS, for one, but there's the fact that he's young to boot (and eager and fine, like a two-year-old thoroughbred rattling the gates at the Breeders' Cup). I never expected greatness from Melano from the first touch (though, to be clear, I do appreciate the eagerness).

To disclose my honest opinion, yeah, in my book, Melano has underwhelmed. Kid looks choked up out there, uptight; he plays the game like he's got to take a shit for the full 90. Even so, I think he'll come good fairly early in 2016. This assumes he comes good at all. He better come good, goddammit; in MLS terms, $5 million is pre-market-bust-level leverage. And, yet, it's not just the money. I'm thrilled to see the Timbers spend big (and let the record show that I just stifled a metaphor). If not that, then what?

The question turns on the half-conscious mechanism by which clubs around the world arrived at, say, a $5 million fee for a player's rights, as happened with Melano. My crude, perhaps even flawed, understanding is that all of this works like a massive semi-silent auction – i.e. it starts with a bunch of crazy-wealthy, fat-headed old dudes saying "I'll pay $X for the kid," and ends when the last fat-headed old dude puts up a number (or, it bears acknowledging, a situation) that no other fat-headed old dude wants to top. Assuming that's correct, it's not an awful model. It is, however, at least somewhat arbitrary.

This model works in Europe, or even Mexico – or at least it works well enough - where clubs' spending on players' rights hits seven digits several times a day during the transfer window(s). The question is whether it make sense for MLS to compete in that world, and at this point in its development, given a system in which, I'm guessing/generalizing here, players' transfer value hits seven digits just a little less often than the league discloses financial terms of their deals.

There is nothing wrong, at all, with spending $5 million on any given player, even under the MLS model. That is not the same, however, as spending $5 million for a player that looks good, but whose value is being established by clubs outside the United States, who are operating with much, much larger budgets (even as many of them spend themselves into the poor house; and it's really, shockingly hard to find out which clubs bid against Portland for Melano; this is the best I could find). Bottom line, all these clubs against which Portland is/was competing for Melano have a lot more anticipated revenue than virtually all MLS clubs will see for a decade, and who therefore have a fuck of a lot more padding when it comes to jumping off the proverbial cliff on the belief that this player or that will come good (again, not a proverb). Players go bust in Europe all the time, especially for the biggest clubs, and the clubs cast them off, loan them out, and generally move on without much difference to the day-to-day. In MLS, on the other hand, $5 million is a hell of lot of cash to risk on potential, and only potential.

It's here where the whole equation of money spent dictates playing time – and it took only one name on the Timbros podcast to notch up the (or my perceived) urgency of this post: I've seen enough positives in Dairon Asprilla's play to want to see more of him. Sure, he's kicked in some lousy finishes, but doesn't that just truly make him a Timber? Hell, now that I mention it, Melano has missed and/or choked on his share. The difference between Melano and Asprilla, at least as prospects, grows from the amount spent on one, but not the other. Basically, the Timbers have to play Melano; leaving a $5 million investment on the bench (or even a $1 million investment) is not an option. But how does Asprilla get an extended run? Where's his cushion to find his feet, not just as a player, but culturally? It's about misaligned incentives in the end, which is, at a minimum, an indictment of the entire designated player system. Which I understand is not going away. I do.

And if you think I'm equating Asprilla with Melano at this point, you're goddamn right I am.

All of the above acknowledges that MLS should, and no doubt will, become a stronger player in the global transfer market. At this point in its development, though, I think the league's individual and collective ownership will be better served by reserving the big-dollar purchases to players with a little more time on their tires. I'm thinking Sebastian Giovinco, here, even if not every club can entice an Atomic Ant to the club picnic...

...and, of course, the counter-arguments come easy. Just tick off the name of every DP the Chicago Fire signed going into 2015.

One Hot Take

In the awful event that the Timbers fail to make the 2015 playoffs, what I'd like to see happen is this: Gavin Wilkinson and Caleb Porter will sit down before a live audience of fans, stakeholders, and shareholders (are there any?) to argue for their respective jobs, a la The Apprentice. It will end with one man being fired. This seems the fairest way to do what I, along with many others, am fairly sure that the relevant people within the Timbers organization will refuse to do. Goddammit.


  1. Guess you are eating your words today!!

  2. Guess you are eating your words today!!

  3. What? I said he'd come good. Just questioned the acquisition model.

    That said, Melano did end 2015 strong, which puts him ahead of the implied schedule. Call me nothing but happy with that.