When I heard the news Seattle FC had lost Obafemi Martins to the Chinese Super League, I assumed it was a blow to Major League Soccer in general, and the Sounders in particular.
Martins finished second in the league’s MVP vote last season, when he scored a club-record 17 goals in MLS games. He had a year remaining on a contract set to pay him $2.4-million.
If China is willing to pay significantly more than that for Martins, I figured it stunts the growth of a U.S. league that remains “Major” in name only.
But Sounders GM and president Garth Lagerwey offered a different spin Monday regarding Martins’ all-but-official deal with Shanghai Greenland Shenhua.
“If you want to get philosophical from a macro-economy sense, we funnel a lot of things in America through Chinese money,” said Lagerwey. “At the end of the day, if we can export players there and take the cash, we can reinvest it in our league. That’s not a bad outcome.”
Martins’ ability is obvious, and there were no indications he was unhappy with the Sounders, nor they with him. But last October the Nigerian striker turned 30, an age that doesn’t always harken the beginning of the end for a pro athlete, merely the end of the beginning.
“One of the reasons MLS has gotten kicked for is signing old players,” said Lagerway. “China’s not signing all older players, but a number of them.”
Earlier this month, Colombian striker Jackson Martinez, 29, was lured from La Liga’s Atletico Madrid to China’s Guangzhou Evergrande for $41.2-million. Australian midfielder Tim Cahill, 36, left the New York Red Bulls a year ago and, after a season spent with Shanghai, agreed to a contract Monday with Hangzhou Greentown.
The Super League’s aggressive spending tactics are consistent with Chinese president Xi Jinping’s determination to turn the nation into as much an international superpower in soccer as it is in, well, just about everything else. At Xi’s urging, the sport has been established as part of the curriculum at 20,000 elementary schools.
Meanwhile, the rights to televise Super League games recently increased from $920,000 to $1.25-billion. Teams are swimming in cash, prompting stars to grab the money now and ask questions later.
And because we’re talking about China, there are many questions.
“This is only the first or second transfer window where they’ve been active, so let’s see what happens,” said Lagerway. “Do players enjoy playing there? Do they get paid on time? Will it impact their success?”
As for Martins, it’s difficult to speculate on whether his great leap forward is wise because the deal is still pending. All Lagerwey knows is that Martins will earn quite more in Shanghai than he did in Seattle, and that participation in a bidding war wasn’t in the Sounders’ best interests.
“Oba wanted to go to China and he’s going to make a good living doing it,” Lagerwey said. “I’m hard-pressed to argue with that from his perspective. But every player has a number that they’re worth, and at some point they’re not.”
The Sounders could have forced Martins to honor his contract, similar to the stance the Seahawks took during Kam Chancellor’s unsuccessful holdout. But drawing such a hard line tends to disgruntle an athlete, and disgruntled athletes create tension.
“I really want people who want to be here,” said Lagerwey. “I think our fans and our club deserve that. I respect anybody who feels differently and tries to make more money. We all like more money.”
Although rookie striker Jordan Morris shares little stylistically with Martins, it’s reasonable to perceive the Seattle-born Stanford product — regarded last season as the top amateur player in the U.S. — as Martins’ replacement.
When the Sounders kick off the 2016 preseason with a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match Tuesday against Club America at CenturyLink Field, Lagerwey envisions a club in the process of reinventing itself.
“Collectively, we can play differently,” he said. “We can play in a more uptempo style. We can play as a more active team. We can press at times.
“When you have a big player leaving, it looks really bad. Time will tell. We have the flexibility to adjust if we need to. I’m excited about giving the guys we have a chance to see how the overcome the absence of Oba.”
Lagerwey’s tone suggested no anger that the Sounders’ most dynamic offensive force took the yuan and ran. He’s just anxious to learn that Martins’ deal has been confirmed.
The GM won’t find out via conventional social media. Twitter is banned in China.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org