Agent Mike Wheeler travels the world scouting soccer players and managing deals for players, clubs and leagues. In the past five years, the player representive and attorney has placed 35 players in the United States, Caribbean and South America. Wheeler is founder and president of MAE Agency.
Wheeler spoke with me about South America’s new interest in MLS, deals that work, and the unique MLS contracts that discourage proven international players from coming to MLS. Continue reading for Part 1 and click here for Part 2.
LE: What’s the feeling right now about MLS in Latin America?
Wheeler: MLS looks good because right now because there’s a lot of teams in South America that basically are not doing well financially. You see it with the new influx of Colombian players because a majority of those Colombian teams are not paying players on time, so the prospect of receiving a timely check every two weeks in MLS is very attractive. Now that you see more teams are willing to do loan deals with option to buy, more of these teams in South America need money, it’s a better fit for them. It puts them in a bigger market in terms of the English [speaking] media market that’s so great in terms of promoting MLS and American players here. They’re seeing the positives of feedback and buzz that they can get for their own players. The teams and players there see the MLS as an attractive next step for their career.
LE: What are the specifics of the “loan with option to buy” deal?
Wheeler: The player’s ITC and registration are registered in their respective home countries and MLS will do an agreement with their home team. Teams will loan their players and ask a loan fee because they’re losing players who will potentially contribute wins to their team or bring fans to the stadium for them in the home country. Now a lot of these loan deals are becoming deals where they don’t have to pay any fee up front and MLS and the home team come to some agreement that after the year when their loan is up there is an option to buy the player. It’s for the MLS team to exercise that option if they like the contributions that player. It’s a good way for the MLS team to see if the player can adapt rather than just buying the player outright based on scouting and seeing him play at home, which in the style and tempo of the game back in South America, is pretty different than the MLS style.
LE: How are loan to buy contracts working out in MLS?
Wheeler: Juan Toja, from Colombia, would be a great example of someone who worked successfully. He was buried on the bench over at River Plate and he came to FC Dallas on a loan, did fantastic as far as contributing to the midfield. After that they bought him, he did well here and MLS sold him on. He’s a great example of how the deal works, but a lot of these deals don’t work out because the players aren’t bought outright. It’s a lot of money, a big investment.
Fredy Montero is another classic example. He came from Deportivo Cali. He had an option to buy and Seattle exercised that. It worked out well.
LE: Besides Colombia, what other countries are now seeing MLS as a good option?
Wheeler: You see more teams looking from Ecuador, as well. Ecuador is a little bit more stable than Colombia. Peru is a good place to be looking too, but you haven’t seen a lot of exchange of Peruvians to the MLS.
A lot of teams in the past were looking at Brazil and Argentina, but the Brazilian league is doing great. The economy down there is doing fantastic. You see a lot of their senior players that were playing abroad come back and earning fantastic contracts. So a team in Brazil is maybe going to lend out their young players like Juninho to the LA Galaxy, but they’re not going to lend out their stars. They’ve got access to the European market, and plenty of agents and teams would rather see their young stars go directly to Europe. There’s such a high demand for Brazilians, and almost the same situation in Argentina. [Argentina’s] economy is not doing as well, but they’re used to doing multi-million dollar deals with their young players. It’s really not attractive to them to loan out talented, up-and-coming players to the MLS when they can just deal directly to Italy or Spain.
LE: How about Chile?
Wheeler: Chile is great, they’ve got a solid economy, and I haven’t seen a lot of back and forth from Chile. But Uruguay is a good country and I’d put it in the Peru, Ecuador, Colombia category. Uruguay has a solid record of producing really good players and the league really doesn’t pay the players well. Chicago Fire has gone down there and gotten a couple Uruguayans and Seattle Sounders got Alvaro Fernandez by tapping into that market. Uruguayans are very well known internationally – hard workers – and they play with a chip on their shoulder because their neighbor Argentina is always looming over them.
LE: There’s a rumor that a player from Jack Warner’s Joe Public FC of Trinidad and Tobago is coming to the New England Revolution. What’s that market like?
Wheeler: With that Trinidadian player, that’s a player they’ve played against before in the CONCACAF Champions League. Trinidad is a great market and the Jamaican market is a good market just to find young, raw talent. The problem though, the quality of the Trinidadian league is poor. So it’s tough to really find a player that’s been playing three, four, five years in those leagues being able to make the jump into the MLS and be a contributor, it’s tough.
I know the league well, I’ve been down there, I know the owners of the teams. They’ve got young bright talents, but you’ve got to get them out of that. I gave a presentation to the Jamaican teams a couple months ago and it’s the same problem always. They don’t want to lose their talent to universities, they want to be paid. They’ve been training their players from a young age, but the MLS doesn’t always pay outright for a transfer and will force these Trinidadians, Jamaica clubs, and take the players on loan with option to buy.
LE: How are European players looking at MLS right now?
Wheeler: A lot of European players want to come over, but it’s just not feasible for players who’ve been playing in England, Spain, France, Germany, where they’re being paid 15,000-20,000 euros per month. Coming over on trial to a team to play for a contract just doesn’t appeal to those players. They’ll be playing for 10-20,000 gross over here in U.S. dollars, so they’re taking a pay cut, so that’s why you don’t see the 27, 28, 29 year-old Europeans coming over. They’ve been playing for years in Europe, earning a good contract – often times their apartment is covered, transportation and car is covered – and those incentives and benefits MLS doesn’t give.
LE: What’s the biggest draw about MLS?
Wheeler: The draw is being able to play in the media entertainment capital of the world. In the U.S., there’s a lifestyle, a culture that players are drawn to. I have this discussion all the time with my Latino colleagues. There are kids playing over in Ecuador, Colombia, who are tremendous talents and don’t get nearly the media coverage that a young, talented, up-and-coming American would get here. The power of the English [speaking] media – the Premiership, MLS, the bloggers, the Internet – triples the marketing exposure and subsequently the marketing value of these young American and English players.
These foreign players see some of that trickling down – Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo – and they see all this exposure and hype and it draws them and they’re curious about it. When you see the big megastars like Diego Forlan, they’ve got a set place where they want to play – they’d love to ply their trade in New York City and get paid very well and spend the last couple years in the U.S. For Diego Forlan it’s not the competition, it’s other factors.
Continue reading Part 2 of my interview with Michael Wheeler here.
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