Why are MLS players moving to Liga MX?

The first night of the Liga MX Clausura illustrates one of the high-profile trends during the winter transfer market. Former Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil hopes to make his Querétaro debut in the opening game against Atlas. Ex-LA Galaxy teammates Juninho and Omar Gonzalez find themselves on opposite sides in the nightcap between Club Tijuana and Pachuca.

Five high-profile MLS players opted to leave the United States and sign with Mexican clubs between the Apertura and the Clausura. Their decisions placed a spotlight on how players move between the two leagues and why this particular close season sparked this sort of exodus.

There are several financial and philosophical motivations behind these sorts of moves. Sometimes, it is a simple of matter of a better contract. Other players are driven by a new challenge or the prospect of playing in a superior league. And a few players find themselves at the crossroads with Liga MX as perhaps the best option.

All of those factors are tied together by structural considerations designed to create the conditions for these sorts of transfers, particularly in cases where established MLS players find themselves contemplating the next step in their careers.

MLS salary budget restrictions reduce flexibility to keep good players

The circumstances at hand this winter illustrate the complicated nature of trying to retain talent within a salary budget of $3.66 million. The salary budget number is soft by design — allocation money, Designated Players and Targeted Allocation Money all increase spending considerably — and yet it still restricts the latitude to players who fall outside targeted spending areas.

LIGA MX CLAUSURA CLUB-BY-CLUB PREVIEW

Consider the list of players who swapped MLS for Liga MX this offseason. Omar Gonzalez fell into a crack in the MLS salary structure because he did not qualify for TAM (his $1.2 million base salary in 2015 exceeded the $1 million limit, according to MLS regulations) and the Galaxy filled all three Designated Player spots. Gil and Luis Silva (Tigres UANL) left for presumably more lucrative deals under freedom of contract after featuring intermittently for Real Salt Lake last season. Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna) reached a point where his play warranted a salary increase that did not necessarily fit within Portland’s salary budget situation. Juninho slotted into that precarious position as a well-paid (by MLS standards) starter without much room for further growth in this ecosystem.

All five of those players are good enough to play and start regularly in MLS, but there are external circumstances to weigh. Their specific situations — and particularly for players under contract like Gonzalez, Juninho and Villafaña — create value judgments for both players and clubs within the MLS ecosystem. In the cases of Gonzalez, Juninho and Villafaña, the Galaxy and the Timbers boasted an incentive to sell those players to free up resources, generate allocation money and relieve salary budget stress.

Liga MX clubs possess the resources to take advantage of market opportunities

Those league-specific foibles provide an opportunity for Liga MX to exploit opportunities in the marketplace. Mexican clubs grasp the level of play in MLS well and understand what sort of players could make the transitions. Their actions in the transfer market over the past several years reflect a desire to tap the American market when the time is right.

It is not a new trend. Several U.S. internationals — including Dom Kinnear, Cle Kooiman, Tab Ramos and Mike Sorber — played in Mexico during the 90s. MLS players decamped to Mexico over the past few years, too. They spanned the spectrum from leading scorers (Camilo Sanvezzo) to national team players (Jonathan Bornstein) to reliable squad players (Rafael Baca, Michael and Gabriel Farfan) to potential prospects (José Villarreal).

The rash of signings this winter highlights the ability of Mexican clubs to pounce when opportunities arise. There were good players available at a relative discount — three players arrived by modest transfer fees, while Gil and Silva moved on free transfers — to strengthen squads. These were not moves at the top end of the market, per se. They were simply ways to improve their teams at a reasonable price point due to the circumstances at hand.

Players eventually benefit by improving contracts and playing situations

It is left for agents and players to take full advantage of the situation at hand. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena noted that Gonzalez could have stayed with the club if he agreed to a new (and reduced) contract. The rest of the players could have seen out their current deals or signed new ones to stay in MLS, too

Many players in their positions have opted to stay in MLS. There is a comfort level for players who want to live in the United States and stay there for the foreseeable future. MLS clubs continue to reward players who perform well in domestic play, though the improved deals might fall below potential pacts elsewhere. Some of them simply do not boast the qualities to thrive in other leagues.

Structural considerations play a part in creating the necessary conditions, but the final decisions ultimately rest with the players themselves. It is incumbent on them to follow their chosen course based on their own priorities. In this particular winter, the verdicts ultimately favored moves to Mexican sides.