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MLS makes gains during busy winter transfer season

(AP Photo/Leo Correa)

 

The heart of winter is a time of year when soccer makes more news off the field than on it.

It’s the middle of the club campaign throughout almost all of Europe, and with team needs and expiring contracts at the forefront, the twice-annual transfer season furnishes a heavy dose of hysteria and spending.

Trades are uncommon in traditional soccer circles, so club executives and agents gather in a virtual marketplace, drenched in rumor and back-channel discussion, in attempts to finalize transactions of both minor and massive impact before the deadline.

The month-long midseason window for Europe’s five most powerful leagues (in England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France) closed Friday with numerous moves. The Premier League alone spent $607 million, dwarfing its record of $318 million seven years ago.

More than 60 percent of expenditures in England involved the top six clubs: Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. Those big teams typically wait until the three-month summer window to make big splashes, but in this case, they saw opportunity.

Liverpool was involved in the two biggest deals, buying Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk from Southampton for $100 million and selling attacker Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for $153 million.

Arsenal welcomed an attacker and bid farewell to two others: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived from Borussia Dortmund for $80 million, while Theo Wolcott left for Everton for $28 million, and Olivier Giroud went to Chelsea for $23 million.

There was an intriguing exchange of players – it’s called a swap, not a trade, in England – as Arsenal sent striker Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United for midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

With his contract expiring this summer, Sanchez was going to leave anyway. Mkhitaryan did not have a bright future at Old Trafford. Both produced right away Saturday: Mkhitaryan posted three assists, including one to Aubameyang, in a 5-1 victory over Everton, while Sanchez had a goal in a 2-0 triumph over Huddersfield Town.

Coutinho, a Brazilian winger, will line up with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at Barcelona, which, with 18 victories and four draws in 22 league matches, is running away with the Spanish title. Premier League leader Manchester City, enjoying a 13-point gap over crosstown rival United, added French defender Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao for $80 million.

While European clubs sought midseason help, MLS teams are in the preseason market – with a fraction of the spending power. That said, with pay scales rising and additional acquisition funds now available, MLS is making gains.

Atlanta United, an ambitious and wealthy organization entering its second season, set a league record by spending an estimated $15 million to purchase Ezequiel Barco, an 18-year-old midfielder, from Argentine club Independiente.

Before the inaugural season, Atlanta acquired Miguel Almiron (nine goals, 14 assists) for $8 million and Josef Martinez (19 goals, one assist) for an undisclosed fee. In the past six months, Atlanta reportedly turned down large offers from abroad for both players.

The big winter rumor: Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 36, to the Los Angeles Galaxy. At the moment, he remains with Manchester United after suffering a major knee injury last spring. The MLS transfer window is open until early May.

Several prominent MLS players left on transfers: Orlando City forward Cyle Larin (Besiktas in Turkey) and New York City FC forward Jack Harrison (Manchester City) on multimillion dollar moves, and D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid (Midtjylland in Denmark) and Columbus Crew forward Kekuta Manneh (Pachuca in Mexico) for no fees because they were free agents.

The Montreal Impact sold Ballou Tabla, 18, to Barcelona for an undisclosed amount.

Midfielders Perry Kitchen (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Oriol Rosell (Orlando City) returned to MLS from abroad, while three defenders with U.S. ties will play here for the first time: Edgar Castillo (Colorado Rapids after 11 years in Mexico), Adam Henley (Real Salt Lake after seven years with Blackburn Rovers) and Shawn Barry (Real Salt Lake after seven years in Europe).

While transfers play a part in MLS roster construction, trades continue to carry heavy impact.

This winter, several standouts changed teams: Darlington Nagbe (Portland to Atlanta), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls to Orlando), Benny Feilhaber (Kansas City to Los Angeles FC), David Accam (Chicago to Philadelphia), Ola Kamara (Columbus to L.A. Galaxy), Kei Kamara (New England to Vancouver), Gyasi Zardes (Galaxy to Columbus) and Justin Meram (Columbus to Orlando).

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