Breakdown: Besler, Zusi deals highlight strides made by MLS clubs in bid to retain stars

Matt Besler and Graham Zusi returned home from the World Cup and started to contemplate their futures. They boasted options to move elsewhere. They pondered the possibilities at their disposal. It took them a bit of time to reach their decisions, but they ultimately chose to stay the course with Sporting Kansas City instead.

Their decision to sign Designated Player deals reflects the changing calculus in MLS and underscores Sporting’s growth over the past few years. The prospect of swapping their current situation — a club with firm support from its investor/operators and its fans, impressive infrastructure from top to bottom and successful principles ingrained in its first team and reinforced by a MLS Cup triumph last December — for another one simply did not make sense to Besler and Zusi.

It is both a sign of the booming times in Kansas City and a victory for MLS. Besler and Zusi join a growing list of players willing to eschew European opportunities for the chance to play in the United States in the long-term. Sporting joins the list of clubs willing to pay competitive salaries to retain players cultivated in house. Those decisions reinforce the strides made by the league and underscore the growth of several clubs over the past few years.

MLS has improved to the point where players do not feel compelled to move overseas to test themselves. They are not coerced into a transfer simply to maintain their national team place or secure a decent contract. They now possess genuine choices because domestic clubs offer better compensation to deserving players and supply more challenges on and off the field.


Instead of making the jump as a matter of course, players can now decide on a case-by-case basis. They can contemplate their personal objectives and weigh the positives and the negatives of their current predicaments before rendering a final verdict. It might make sense to stay. It might make even more sense to go. But it is now down to individual preferences and specifics rather than bright line rules.

MLS presents a competitive option in the right situation for the right player, though it is not always the best or the most reasonable choice. Clubs are not particularly well positioned to retain young prospects (for compensation, development and salary budget concerns) or stave off interest from top European clubs (for competitive and financial reasons), but they can keep and tempt established figures in certain circumstances. It is no longer a fait accompli to leave one of the top MLS teams for a mid-table side in a marquee European league.

It shows in the transfer movements over the past year or so. Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey exchanged squad places at European-chasing sides for lucrative, over-the-market deals with guaranteed playing time at home. Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst returned to the league in search of exposure and playing time in a World Cup year. Omar Gonzalez rejected overtures from Europe and Mexico to stay with LA Galaxy on a market-level contract. Landon Donovan kept his firm commitment to the league and the Galaxy, too. Besler and Zusi trod down the same path to stick with Sporting Kansas City over the long term.


All of those signings (and more than a few others) represent a natural step in the development of the league. MLS clubs needed to spend more money to acquire, cultivate and extend top American players to bolster the quality of play and sharpen its image. The decision to respond aggressively with better financial packages for recognizable faces reaped the desired benefits over the past year or so, though the day of reckoning for the modest spending elsewhere looms sooner rather than later. The impending decisions facing the likes of DaMarcus Beasley and Jermaine Jones present another test to see exactly how far the financial commitment reaches at this point in time.

The current state of affairs reflects the strides already made, though. MLS has reached a stage where players can reasonably select to stay at home instead of pursue a move overseas. They may sacrifice some weekly rigors at a higher level along the way and suffer national team consequences if the pool improves over the next few years, but it is a scenario where the overall package across the board is comparable enough to make the decision worthwhile for personal and professional reasons.

It is a big development for MLS to keep players like Besler and Zusi home with some regularity. They can satisfy many, if not all, of their goals at home now. They can choose this path if they so desire. And that development represents an important step forward for a league with plenty of work still to do in the years ahead.

Five Points – Week 20

1. Besler and Zusi aren’t the only players thriving at Sporting Kansas City: Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber both featured prominently on the list of players unfortunate to miss out on a place in the MLS All-Star squad on Saturday. Feilhaber offered a punctuation mark to his consistently effective performances in midfield with this cracking free kick in the 2-1 victory over LA Galaxy.

2. Portland snatches critical victory over Colorado: Porter and his players desperately needed the full complement of points against a determined Rapids outfit. It took a couple of second-half substitutions and a switch to a two-forward setup, but the Timbers – disjointed for so much of the game against a defiant opponent – found a way to procure a 2-1 triumph at Providence Park nevertheless.

3. Leave it to Frank Yallop to explain the late penalty decision against Gonzalo Segares …: “It was one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen,” Yallop told reporters after Sebastien Le Toux’s late penalty lifted Philadelphia to a scarcely deserved 1-1 draw at Toyota Park. “His arm is against his body. [It] hits Gonzo on the arm which is on his chest, not away from his body.”

4. … and Real Salt Lake manager Jeff Cassar to fume after the verdict rendered against Nat Borchers: “It’s not a PK,” Cassar said after Borchers conceded a spot kick for his seemingly fair challenge on Darren Mattocks in the 1-1 draw between the sides at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. “It’s 100 percent not a PK – I just watched it again. I wish the referee would, you know, be positive [about a call like that]. I went up to him afterwards and asked him ‘are you sure about that call?’ He said ‘pretty sure.’  It’s a PK in the box – you need to be sure. You can’t be ‘almost right’ about those types of calls. Maybe in the middle of the field, you can get away with that, but not a PK. It changes the game, changes the momentum.”

5. D.C. United exploits Chivas USA’s fine margins to claim victory: Chivas USA cobbled together a five-match unbeaten run by keeping the lines tight and striking through Erick Torres at the perfect moment. It is the most appropriate path for a limited side, but it leaves little margin for error. Oswaldo Minda conceded a needless penalty to throw United — a side mustering little menace from its prolonged periods in possession before that point —  the opener from the spot. The home side grasped firm control of the game as Chivas USA stretched things out and sustained its own fine run with a straightforward 3-1 victory at RFK Stadium.