MLS, Europe, and League Equivalency

Scott Halleran

With the close of the European transfer window, the question rises once more: does an MLS player take a step down by going to the English Championship or one of the other European lower tiers? It's not always that easy to tell. I've taken a bit of time to explain why I think that is.

Though there weren't many overseas ventures for MLS players this time around, yesterday's European transfer window deadline did see Sporting Kansas City (and former Houston Dynamo) forward Kei Kamara move to Middlesbrough (familiarly known as Boro) of the English Championship. Kamara, of course, had a loan stint with Premier League side Norwich City last season, in which he scored one goal in eleven appearances. His deal with Boro, however, is a permanent signing, perhaps allowing him to make himself more known in Europe.

My opinion of Kamara and his time with and against the Dynamo aside, I wish him the best in Europe. He's a good, quality player, and it's always nice to see a player who started in MLS succeeding overseas. It also got me to wondering. Like the move of Geoff Cameron to Stoke City last summer (and that of Brek Shea to Stoke over the winter), it's led to talk of what leagues are the so-called "equivalent" of Major League Soccer - something I'd like to give a short opinion about.

To make a long story short - there are none. I don't mean that to talk down (or build up) any other league. I mean that in the sense that every league is so different that there's little to truly compare. A better question is "is the club a fit for the player?" Kamara, with a short stint in the Premier League, proved that he does have the talent to make a top tier roster - but he wasn't getting much playing time. On the flip side, Cameron saw significant playing time last season at Stoke - though it was as if he never settled down, playing in several positions as the season went on.

Does this mean one player is better than the other? No. Comparing a striker and a defender/midfielder is a sketchy prospect. Let it suffice to say that Stoke made more sense for Cameron than Norwich City might have for Kamara. Using this logic, you could argue that Boro is a better move for him, even though it's not quite as bright a stage as the Premier League. He's guaranteed more time on the pitch, and he'll still be in Europe. Club to club, it might be a bit of a step down, but it's obviously an opportunity he wanted to take.

Another case in point: Macoumba Kandji, who our own Ordinary Orange Fan interviewed a few weeks ago. After several trials around Europe, he landed with Kalloni F.C. of the Greek Football League (second tier) and helped them win promotion before landing with top flight club Levadiakos F.C. in June. The lower levels of Greek football seem like a vast step down for a man who was won an MLS Cup, but it was a place that let him pursue dreams of playing in Europe - dreams which he hopes will be aided by these stints.

Likewise, 2013's self proclaimed "Mr. Irrelevant," Yannick Smith (last pick of the Supplemental Draft), found himself playing for Ekenäs Idrottsförening, a third tier club in Finland, after being cut by the Dynamo during the preseason. Does it offer him the same opportunities as MLS would? Absolutely not. But I've kept in touch with him via Twitter, and he seems to be enjoying the opportunity to play - an attitude anyone can appreciate. He's told me that after the Finnish season ends he wants to go back and graduate from college before evaluating his soccer career, and that he would love to make it back here to Houston one day (something I'd honestly like to see).

Last (but not least), we have the other major offseason departure overseas: Andre Hainault. The Canadian international signed with Scottish Premier League club Ross County on a free transfer, and scored one goal in eight appearances with the club (with said goal the difference in a derby win that denied their rivals a shot at European play - talk about endearing yourself to supporters) before signing a two-year deal with VfR Aalen (2. Bundesliga) in July. Hainault may not be in the top tiers of Europe, but he's obviously valued enough for multi-year deals and (in the case of his free transfer to Ross County) a choice of where he wants to play.

I think that these examples suffice to show that in most cases, when a player goes overseas, it's not something that can be judged solely as "a step up" or "a step down." These are, understandably, easy terms to fall back on, but the real picture is much more. I think in the end, the true question is how the player and the club fit with one another. Sometimes, it's better to take that perceived step down - because it may make it that much easier to take the next step in their careers. And in the end, for the player, isn't that what really matters?

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