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D.C. United, Mesut Ozil, and you: How to sort out whether a transfer rumor is serious or not

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It’s the offseason, so we need to talk about how transfer rumors work, and which ones you should pay attention to

Arsenal Training Session Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

So we’re doing this again. The rumor linking Arsenal attacking midfielder Mesut Özil to a move to D.C. United has been resurrected. With United in need of a spark after a very disappointing season, Özil wanting to play after being left out in the cold, and Arsenal wanting the German World Cup winner’s wages off their books, there’s a reason to think every involved party would benefit.

The appeal for United is obvious. Özil is a world-famous superstar who would walk into MLS as the best passer in the league. United, meanwhile, misdiagnosed the ability of multiple recent signings to dictate a game, and remains in need of exactly what Özil is: a playmaker. Regardless of how silly it is for soccer fans in the region to ignore the prospect of seeing the sport in person in favor of getting up at 6am to pay for an expensive streaming service, the fact is that Wayne Rooney brought a kind of relevance to the Black-and-Red that is hard to replicate by any means short of winning MLS Cup.

Özil, meanwhile, wants to open a coffee shop in the southwest corner of Audi Field (fans have seen the signs for 39 Steps Coffee Haus for over a year now), and more importantly the dude wants to play soccer. Arsenal left him off of their Europa League squad, and they haven’t given him a second of playing time this season in any competition. In fact, he hasn’t played since before Covid-19 hit, which feels like it means seven years but actually it’s about nine months.

However, these two paragraphs do not make a transfer, or even a solid transfer rumor. They’re a weak circumstantial case that maybe the two sides could still have interest in one another, even after previous talks (possibly over a transfer, possibly just over the coffee shop) petered out in 2019.

That is, until today, when two different Turkish outlets ran the same article saying that the “most serious” offer in Özil’s hands came from D.C. United. Goal then synthesized the reports into a tweet, The Daily Mail restated the rehashings of this old rumor, and now we’re off and running.

Except...why are we running? What underpins any of these reports? Here are some questions to ask yourself about any given transfer rumor:

Are there actual quotes anywhere in the piece?

The lowest form of transfer rumor involves taking an out-of-date rumor that maybe did have some juice at some point and serving it back up some time in the future, with no new developments or sourcing. I can tell you from experience how these things get brought back up:

  1. Two people who haven’t talked about the old rumor before get to talking, and one side offers it up as something they heard, and then the other side gets excited rather than looking into how old this rumor is.
  2. Someone in need of a piece that drives traffic or boosts social metrics says “hey that old (insert player) rumor went viral, and the transfer window is approaching, so let me pad my numbers.”

If you read the piece and it contains no new statements of fact, it’s probably not a serious rumor. Look at the language choices: when things aren’t stated with certainty, it’s so the publication has wiggle room. Leo Messi could be heading to D.C. United...because technically, it is possible that he could decide to move to a city where he has no real history, for a lot less money than he could get from many other places. I could also win the lottery tomorrow.

If there are quotes or new reporting, are those from one anonymous source, multiple sources, or someone on the record?

So let’s say the reporting is actually based on a real human being with knowledge of the situation declaring that there’s a new development. That’s a step towards a more solid rumor, but it’s far from ironclad. An anonymous source can be just a rando on Twitter playing a joke, or can be someone who wants to be a bigger player on the scene than they are.

One anonymous source? That’s very flimsy. The same goes with the source being a player’s agent. Agents obviously know exactly what’s going on, but they have a vested interest in getting a better deal for their players. It’s very easy, and very common, for an agent to sense that the team they’re most serious about might become more generous if there’s competition for the player involved.

Multiple sources is definitely better, but you still have to hedge sometimes. In this case, what if the sources are all based in Europe? Well, generally speaking there are very few outlets outside of CONCACAF that know the reality of how MLS works, or the situation on the ground with a specific club. This is how we end up with the LA Galaxy being mentioned in so many of these rumors. Inter Miami is in the club due to David Beckham’s involvement, and Rooney’s time with United raised DCU’s profile up into this group as well. We’re maybe not on the radar like the Galaxy, but a random soccer journalist in a random European country is more likely to have heard of United than, say, the Colorado Rapids.

So multiple sources, from both sides of the transfer rumor...that’s when you should start being more interested.

Who is doing the reporting?

Reputation matters. There are places where the soccer media has a tradition of sensationalized rumors, or outright falsehoods. Italy’s famous “calciomercato” culture is notorious for inventing things out of thin air, or taking the flimsiest of rumors and presenting them as serious. In other countries, things are different. Maybe you have an England situation, where some papers are reputable, while others become a joke on Ted Lasso because they’re known for having lower journalistic standards. Maybe a given league’s transfer rumor culture plays out on Twitter, while their neighbor’s is more active on Facebook.

That’s why it was important to lay out the path of how today’s rumor got to us. Two Turkish outlets posted a report that contains no sourcing, no new developments, no quotes, or anything else. Two English-language outlets — one a site that makes no real bones about being a place where people can hear about rumors and one a newspaper that has long been fine with positioning this sort of rumor as being more serious than it is — repeated those Turkish reports with no new information whatsoever.

Now, let’s consider some basic math. Mesut Özil is said to be making £350,000 per week, which according to today’s exchange rate is $467,839.75. Nearly half a million bucks, every week, for 52 weeks, means $24,327,667 annually.

That is a lot! No one would be expecting Özil to get this exact, gargantuan salary offer from an MLS team, but even assuming a huge pay cut, we’re way over what United paid Rooney. And remember, United paid Rooney that salary before Covid-19 wrecked the American economy, and kept fans out of the stands for virtually an entire season. MLS clubs, whose chief source of revenue remains gameday, have no idea how many times they’ll have fans in stadiums in 2021, which means they don’t really know how much money they can throw around on future signings.

On top of that uncertainty, United is dealing with paying off the loans to build Audi Field, which was very expensive. They’re still doing improvements on an even newer stadium, Segra Field. They’re still building a new and very expensive training facility. They also spent $5 million to bring Edison Flores to the club, and are also paying Designated Player money to Paul Arriola. Those players are being paid by ownership rather than getting their checks from MLS (as is the case with non-DPs).

Piling on further, United has to put together a salary package for a new head coach, and very likely that means multiple new assistants. This new coach may want new equipment or new positions that aren’t even part of the club’s org chart right now.

Now, with all of these expenses in mind, and considering the degree of pay cut Özil could stomach, and looking at the gloomy financial future ahead of American clubs due to the pandemic, do you think United is going to get into the neighborhood of the kind of eight-figure salary offer this deal would take?

Let me put it to you plainly: there’s not much to this rumor at all, and the chances of United and Özil coming to a deal for 2021 are very remote. Don’t rule it out entirely — the sides did talk, and Özil will probably be a free agent this winter — but be realistic about it. United simply does not appear to have the room to make this kind of deal right now, unless Özil is so interested in moving to the District that he’d be willing to take a pay cut that goes way past 50%. Would you do that?