It won't garner as many headlines as Thierry Henry's acquisition by New York, but when we zoom away from the summer of '10 and look at this season with history's perspective, Seattle's Thursday signing of Uruguayan midfielder Álvaro Fernández should turnout to be the most influential of MLS's season. But selifishly, I can't help but be a little bit annoyed by the timing.
Being the typical, self-centered writing archetype to which you've becoming accustomed (the kind that pretends "to which" isn't cumbersome), I was deflated by Seattle's announcement, one that takes the air out of a piece scheduled to come out next week (continuing this series, started here) about how MLS needs to better use their designated player spots. But then here comes Adrian Hanauer and Seattle, making a brilliant signing that defies the pattern of inking over-the-hill, little-known players who will have a marginal effect. Thanks, Adrian, for thinking about what's best for team and league and not what's best for my content.
Seattle seems to have figured out what Major League Soccer fans have hypothesized for some time. If you can't get a name international with your designated player slots and money - a Beckham, Henry, Ljundberg-type - look to the markets beyond Europe that MLS has failed to utilize. Use those markets to find and sign a younger, better player. Until yesterday, every designated player has come from one of three places: North America (Canada, U.S. and Mexico), South America's power base (Brazil and Argentina), or Europe (where I include Colombian Juan Pablo Ángel, as he came from Aston Villa). The newest Sounder is from a different mold, and at 24-years-old, Fernández is currently the youngest designated player (and if it wasn't for Chicago signing Nery Castillo just weeks ago, it wouldn't be close).
And so it is that Seattle has again gotten out ahead of the league. Last year, their preseason marketing made them the most popular team in the league before their first kick-off. They found Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, and Leo Gonzalez, making them immediately competitive. They convinced Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg to join them. They drafted well (Steve Zakuani) and were smart about identifying second division talent (Sebastien Le Toux). With the possible exception of the Keller and Ljungberg acquisition, none of these ideas are beyond the reach of every other MLS team, yet Seattle has implemented them. Now, by acquiring a 24-year-old Uruguayan international instead of signing a somebody who had become ineffective in Spain (I'm thinking Mista, not Henry, but I suppose if the shoe fits), somebody who couldn't fit into a team's foreign player spots in Ukraine (Castillo) or an older player who is unknown to most diehard soccer fans (Branko Boskovic), Seattle has again gotten the drop on the league.
Fernández could be Seattle's third designated player, something that will seemingly be resolved in the coming days. If he's added to the roster while Freddie Ljungberg's still with the team, the Sounders will have to pay a fee to the league - $250,000 that will be dispersed to the other 15 teams as allocation money. If Ljungberg stays, Seattle will join New York with three designated players, with the Red Bulls set to sign Rafa Marquez.
But as with any signing, Fernández's signing carries potential risks, some of which will be heightened because of the Uruguayan's age. Here are four reasons why the Fernández signing works and four reasons why it could fail:
1. Talent - As if making the Uruguayan national team for South Africa wasn't enough, Álvaro Fernández has played (and played regularly) for major clubs through the hemisphere: Puebla, Nacional of Uruguay, and Universidad de Chile. He's been part of a title team in Uruguay and has played a role in each of the last two Copa LIbertadores. Playing almost exclusively a central role, the lanky midfielder can distribute with both feet and while not powerful, has a precision that will convert penalty area chances into goals.
2. Fits a need - The player I just described is exactly what Seattle needs. As Ljungberg has waned, the hole in central midfielder has grown, and with Fernández, Sigi Schmid has somebody who can utilize Steve Zakuani's speed, play-off of Fredy Montero, and target Blaise Nfuko. Fernández will patrol the space in front of Osvaldo Alonso, turning the Cuban's forced turnovers into transition opportunities as he quickly gets the ball to Zakuani and Montero.
3. Youth - At 24, not only can Fernández be expected to get better, but unlike many of Major League Soccer's other designated players, he's unlikely to get worse anytime soon. That could put Major League Soccer in a position to have ...
4. Sell-On Value - Major League Soccer still hasn't wrapped its mind around the idea of selling players. For them it's a prestige-thing, so much so that their hands have had to be forced on the few sales they've made (Clint Dempsey). Players like Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark have recently moved for nothing because Major League Soccer was not proactive about their departures before their contracts expired. We'll see if MLS has learned from history when Fernández, entering the prime of his career, may want to make his next move. Given Seattle tends to figure these things out before we do, the Sounders may already have ideas in place.
1. Might Not Adjust - For whatever reason, players sometimes just don't "click" in their new environments, and when you take a 24-year-old and move him half-way across the world, factors like inexperience and fish-out-of-water compound. Fernández, however, has played in Mexico and Portugal, and much of his professional experience is outside Uruguay. While there is a chance that 24-year-old Álvaro doesn't click in Seattle, there are also reasons to think those chances diminished.
2. Culture - Seattle is not Montevideo. Well, perhaps it is. Maybe Montevideo is the Seattle of South America and I don't know. I've only been to one of the two cities, so I may be presumptive in saying there's a greater than zero percent chance a young Uruguayan might find the Seattle fall a bit gray.
3. Heightened Expectations - Clearly, I think Fernández is a good player, but there is a reason why he didn't get into a Uruguay lineup that started the World Cup desperate for a play-making presence behind Diego Forlán and Luis Suárez. There are also reasons why he didn't stay on in Portugal. Fernández is a very good player, but he's not without flaws, flaws which could be exposed by ...
4. Style of Play - Fernández is coming to a league that will test how strong he is on the ball, and while the Uruguayan can be quite graceful with his head-up, streaking out of his own half of the field, he can be ridden off the ball, and you wonder whether Major League Soccer's culture of letting play go will effect Fernández. MLS will be a much more physical league than any Fernández has played in before. Will he be able to handle it, and if he is, will there still be a degree of wearing down?
Regardless of whether Fernández succeeds, the move has the potential to be a watershed moment for the league. The idea of always looking to Europe, Brazil or Argentina for retread players - players who have fallen out with their teams - is old world thinking. Yes, MLS could use a Michael Owen or Gennaro Gattuso, but if you're acquiring an older player who doesn't bring an element of prestige, you may be better finding a lesser-known, younger, better player. That player won't increase season ticket sales on day one, but nothing sells tickets like winning.
Leave it to Seattle to again show the way.