For over a decade, I've had a long-running series of jokes I tell about what I'd do if I won the lottery. They're all either preposterously wasteful (wearing socks only once before throwing them away) or offensively gaudy (painting the front of my house in chrome, so as to blind anyone who looks at it). Somewhere between Scrooge McDuck's money bin and Harlem resident Tron purchasing a baby on a whim is the sweet spot.
I was thinking about those jokes yesterday, a day that saw Toronto FC schedule the press conference in which they will unveil Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe...and then this also happened:
Ready for a blockbuster? I'm hearing @torontofc on the verge of signing Michael Bradley. Would be a huge coup for @MLS and @torontofc #USMNT— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) January 8, 2014
To sum up, in one day TFC is alleged to have more or less shored up a player in the running for England's World Cup squad and then also potentially signed the best American soccer player currently playing soccer for a living. In the world of MLS, this was like watching Toronto buy the nicest car in town, and then a few hours later they show up in a full-size, fully functional Voltron.
None of this really concerns D.C. United, save for however many times we actually have to play the Reds. Buying players from big European clubs is something for the 1%ers of MLS to do. Until we build our own stadium, we will be trying to grab the spare players out of their gilded garbage dumpster (see: Eddie Johnson). It's not necessarily fun, but it's the truth right now for this club.
What does concern United is the domino effect these moves will have up in Ontario. Defoe and Bradley will arrive as Designated Players, and TFC only just signed Brazilian striker Gilberto to a DP deal. Those three would join a team that already has Young DP Matias Laba on the roster, meaning that TFC has a decision to make. A DP would either have to have his contract paid down with allocation money, or someone has to be traded. All signs out of Toronto are pointing towards the latter, with hot prospect Laba said to be on the trading block.
That's 22 year old, former Argentina under-20 national team player Matias Laba, the one transaction TFC made last year that was an unqualified success. A guy who pushed his way onto on MLS's 24 Under 24 list - he was #21, and was probably underrated - despite being on a typically awful TFC team that failed to pair him with the right sort of partner in central midfield. Stats aren't everything, but Laba's stats - not his goals and assists, but other metrics like intercepted passes and successful tackles - before a broken foot ended his season put him up with MLS's elite central midfielders, as Dave Rowaan from Waking The Red noted last August.
So what, exactly, does Laba do that makes him so great? He's something of an all-around central midfielder, equally adept at creating as he is at destroying. Laba will win more than his fair share of tackles and intercept plenty of passes, but he's also got more than a bit of deep-lying playmaker to his game. The times that TFC actually looked good in possession - believe it or not this did happen - were mostly down to Laba's ability to spread the ball around and then make himself available for the return pass. He's tenacious and hard-working, but more importantly has the touch and the vision to get his teammates in positions where they can make things happen in the attack.
Does this sound interesting, DC fans? It should, especially to those of you who were displeased with the acquisition of Arnaud. Laba has a different skill set from the veteran Arnaud, who is more physical and less cerebral about how he wins the ball and is also less likely to play vertical passes than the young Argentine. Laba is also different from Jared Jeffrey, who is good at switching the point of attack and great at crushing long-range shots, but only offers one or two dangerous attacking passes a game.
It seems highly likely that Ben Olsen will continue to deploy a formation with a pair of central midfielders more or less alongside one another, whether it's a 442, 4411, or 4231. The days of Olsen playing a 4132 may not be dead, but until we see otherwise it's safe to assume that the Black-and-Red will field someone next to Perry Kitchen rather than anything else. United's attack would be better served with someone with Laba's qualities in that role more than anyone else on the current roster.
The division of labor would be fairly simple. Kitchen would have less to do going forward and could focus more on what he's best at: Winning the ball. Laba, in turn, would be expected to function as the distributor, putting EJ, Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon, Luis Silva, and (maybe) Fabian Espindola into spots where they can be dangerous. Last year, United left too much of the creative burden on guys who we need to count on for goals; Laba would take that burden off of their shoulders. That would mean more chances for our wingers to go to goal, as well as more through balls for speedsters like Johnson and Espindola to run onto than last year's team could have possibly provided.
Obviously our last attempt at signing a Young DP - rules about 40% down the page here - ended with a thud, as Rafael Gladiador was given the thumbs down by United after only a few months. However, much like someone who got dumped, we've had a few months to recover and should resume approaching attractive strangers. Laba has already shown that he can play and play well in MLS, so we don't have to worry about whether he's totally unprepared for the league like Rafael was. We have the international roster spots available to carry Laba without a problem, and his 2013 salary was just $200,000. It's a rare thing in MLS: There are no salary cap or roster obstacles to deal with in this scenario.
None of this is to indicate that Laba can be had cheaply. TFC knows better than anyone what they have on their hands in Laba, and surely every MLS team saw tape on him as well. Plenty of teams could use a central midfield upgrade, and even those that don't need a starter should be interested in getting a 22 year old of this caliber. The bidding is going to be fierce unless the other teams in MLS are dumb.
Fortunately, United is still well-stocked when it comes to non-player assets. We still have the top spot in the allocation ranking; we still have the #1 overall draft pick; and we still have a substantial amount of allocation money. Most likely, any team trying to put together an offer for Laba would have to put up a hard-to-replace starting player to top the sort of trade package United can put together without touching our starting lineup.
Ultimately, this is an example of how United should be looking to succeed despite the current, stadium-enforced financial situation prevents us from playing on even terms with the TFC/LA/NYRB/Seattles of the world. The acquisitions that make it onto Sportscenter also force those teams to move good players out to make room for various reasons. This is how, say, the Chicago Fire ends up with Mike Magee, or how we got EJ.
It actually reminds me a bit of guerrilla warfare. We can't possibly win a straight-up battle for someone like Bradley, but that doesn't mean we can't still achieve our goals. After all, our object is to win at soccer, not win at spending money. If TFC wants to load up on millionaires, fine; in MLS, that means they'll still have to fill out the rest of their roster with guys that play above their salary. They'll have no flexibility, and one injury will leave them relying on someone that might not even make most MLS rosters.
United has a luxury that TFC doesn't: We have the flexibility to go after guys like Laba, and to assemble a team that has 14-15 potential starters rather than hoping our mega-watt stars can make up for the fact that our roster really falls off after the eighth or ninth best player. We can be adaptable in ways that a team like TFC can't, and a vital part of that is making good use of the players they just can't find a way to carry any more. Laba is most certainly TFC's loss; why not make sure he ends up being our gain?
- MLS Mock Draft: DC United pick Patrick Mullins with No. 1 pick
- Freedom Kicks for 9 January 2014: D.C. United signs Nana Attakora, UEFA switching to a summer schedule
- Let's Make a Deal: Considering trade negotiations between D.C. United and Chivas USA for the #1 SuperDraft pick
- Filibuster podcast episode 62: It sounds like the Killing Curse from Harry Potter
- Fair warning: Black and Red United will have stricter commenting guidelines this season