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How Does the Chinese Super League's Spending Spree Affect MLS?

Peter Galindo@@GalindoPWFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2016

Oct 25, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Sounders FC forward Obafemi Martins (9) reacts following a goal against the Real Salt Lake during the first half at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Chinese Super League's blockbuster transfer market has crept its way into Major League Soccer. Seattle Sounders striker Obafemi Martins is closing in on a move to Shanghai Shenhua for around $3 million, per ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle.

If the deal is confirmed, China's spending splurge will become a worry for MLS.

TransferMarkt China @asaikana

Obafemi Martins arrived Shanghai Shenhua's training camp in South Korea. https://t.co/5OCEMYSpMI

Both MLS and the CSL are considered to be up-and-coming leagues. Yet it is the latter that is rapidly growing into a top competition, despite starting in 2004.

Firstly, the CSL is snapping up players in their prime. Alex Teixeira was a Liverpool and Chelsea target, per Marcus Christenson and Thiago Rabelo of the Guardian

Meanwhile, the highest-paid MLS player is Kaka at about $7.1 million, per the MLS Players Union.

The structures of both leagues are telling based on these figures alone. MLS' salary cap prevents the teams from signing more quality players. This is not the case in China.

Designated players, general and targeted allocation money allow for some flexibility. This has allowed Toronto FC to spend more in annual wages than any other MLS club at $22.7 million, per ESPN FC.

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However, it's still an inadequate amount compared to the CSL.

Ezequiel Lavezzi was a reported MLS target last August. He was even offered a five-year, $17 million contract by an unnamed MLS team, per La Gazzetta dello Sport (via the official MLS website). Less than six months later, Lavezzi is set to earn €38 million over two seasons with Hebei China Fortune, per the Independent's Tom Sheen.

Every club loses out on a player due to wage demands, but this highlights the need for MLS to open its wallet and pay players what they deserve.

CSL teams are able to pay handsome salaries and transfer fees thanks to their wealthy owners and rich TV deal. For example, Chinese juggernaut Alibaba owns 50 percent of Guangzhou Evergrande. The Asian Champions League winners are now valued at around $1.6 billion, per Reuters.

Guangzhou Evergrande has already won the Asian Champions League twice in the last three seasons.
Guangzhou Evergrande has already won the Asian Champions League twice in the last three seasons.Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press

MLS' most valuable club is the Seattle Sounders at $245 million, according to ForbesChris Smith.

The CSL television deal is worth around $1.25 billion over five years, which trumps MLS' eight-year, $720-million contract, per Philly.com's Jonathan Tannenwald.

MLS cannot let quality players depart for paltry sums. Martins has scored 40 goals in 72 appearances with the Sounders. Selling one of the league's best strikers for a small fee is unforgivable.

The only way to counteract this is by investing more money into grassroots development and towards player salaries to keep the league's elite in MLS.

Chinese soccer has thrived in both areas, especially the latter. The country has implemented long-term plans for grassroots development and promotes domestic players with its limit of four foreigners, plus one player from the AFC region, per team. MLS would be smart to adopt some of these rules.

The league already spends approximately $40 million on player development, per Matthew Futterman of the Wall Street Journal (via SoccerAmerica's Mike Woitalla). It's a start, but it's still too low.

If MLS invested more money in player salaries and youth development, its teams would be able to keep homegrown players like Matt Miazga for a few more years.
If MLS invested more money in player salaries and youth development, its teams would be able to keep homegrown players like Matt Miazga for a few more years.Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Developing homegrown players is an area where MLS has to be successful. If it produces its own talent and increases the salary cap, the likes of Matt Miazga may choose to stay with their hometown clubs for a few more years.

MLS commissioner Don Garber told VICE Sports' Aaron Gordon that the league is committed to heavier investment in youth development:

We're spending more on youth development today than we were spending on our overall player budget five years ago. It is a massive focus for our league. Yesterday you had Matt Miazga who grew up in the shadows of Red Bull Arena, arguably one of the most exciting U.S. National Team prospects, and if not for the Red Bull Academy, he may not be playing at the level he is and he certainly would likely not be playing in the United States. We're going to continue to invest deeply in developing the best possible young players in our country with laser focus, and doing it both because I think it will help the growth of the sport in our country.

This will eventually lead to a better product on the field and a richer TV deal, which would significantly boost the league's credibility and popularity worldwide.

If MLS fails to complete either of these tasks, it can expect to see more of its top players being poached by Chinese teams.

Peter Galindo covers MLS and the U.S. men's national team for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @GalindoPW.

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