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Tessmann, Vines, Busio: How MLS clubs balance the competitive drive with European moves mid-season

Tanner Tessmann first. Then Sam Vines. Gianluca Busio now. Three MLS homegrown players (Tessmann and Busio are both adolescents) are departing midseason for the bright lights of European football. Tessmann and Busio will join Venezia FC in Serie A, while Vines will join Royal Antwerp in Belgium’s top flight.

These are bold MLS moves. Since Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie broke out in the Bundesliga in 2016 and 2017, the trend has persisted. However, many of these deals — Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, and Bryan Reynolds in the last year alone — have occurred during the MLS winter rather than during the summer transfer window in Europe.

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“Strong European markets are increasingly chasing American players, so this will happen more and more,” FC Dallas technical director Andre Zanotta told ESPN. This will happen more often, and clubs will need to be ready — and this is my duty — when it does.

MLS used to have a reputation for holding on to players that were ready to move on, such Cyle Larin leaving Orlando City SC and Fabian Castillo leaving FC Dallas for Trabzonspor. MLS has embraced its role as a developmental league in the global soccer market, but clubs are still reluctant to trade with great players ahead of the unpredictable MLS Cup playoffs.

That’s evolving too.

The postseason was two months away when Reggie Cannon left FC Dallas for Boavista. Chris Durkin joined Sint-Truiden on loan from DC United and made the move permanent a year later, while Henry Wingo joined Molde from Seattle Sounders FC.

After only three Homegrown players left the league midway between 2015 and 2020, three have done so this year alone, with reports suggesting Dallas’ Ricardo Pepi, 18, and Colorado Rapids’ Cole Bassett, 20, may be next in line.

As Zanotta remarked, clubs will increasingly have to balance their competitive character (the pursuit of the MLS Cup) with a philosophy of developing outstanding young players and allowing them to progress to higher levels.

 

“The true challenge is maintaining competitiveness within your squad while both developing and selling players,” Sports KC manager and sporting director Peter Vermes told ESPN. “To be honest, it’s not easy.” The emergence of Bryan Reynolds (who has since moved to AS Roma) gave Dallas confidence to lose Cannon last season without a noticeable dip in right-back performances, and his team’s midfield depth covered any voids left by Tessmann’s Italian adventure this season.

But the latter question is ambiguous.

 

Clubs make these judgments based on a number of factors off the field. Will a star’s departure hinder an MLS Cup run? How much income would be lost without home playoff games? What message would a relocation send to fans about the team’s ambition? Ultimately, front offices around the league ask themselves two questions: Do we have enough depth to survive without him, and most importantly, what does he want?
According to Zanotta, “nine out of ten players aspire to play in the top European leagues.” I’ve witnessed many situations where players are frustrated because they believe they will have another chance.

 

Vermes: “In addition to Sporting Kansas City, there will be players that wish to play in Europe. So I need to be prepared with a succession plan. It’s not for me to advise the athlete to stay here for the rest of his career.

 

“It’s not good philosophy to know a player wants to go to Europe or somewhere, but then not allow them to leave. Personally, I think it’s a bad ideology. I’m not condemning other teams, just saying it’s not right for us. I want guys that want to be here, and I think we should help them achieve their goals.”

 

 

Despite the difficulty and increasing frequency of these questions, Vermes sees them as the kind of puzzles MLS front offices have long desired to solve. He cited the USMNT’s Gold Cup triumph, with 13 of the 23 players having grown up in an MLS academy. Vermes sees it as proof that the US/Canadian player-development model works. And there will be more.

 

“Academies like Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Ajax have been around for 50 years,” he remarked. “We’re only just touching it. The fact that we can now create high-quality international players says a lot about our progress. We still have a lot to do, and we can improve in many areas, but we’re moving in the right direction, and I believe that’s huge.

 

“This is when you double down,” he said.
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