What Kemar Lawrence’s Trade Request Might Mean for MLS

Posted By Harrison Hamm on December 15, 2019
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New York Red Bulls star left-back Kemar Lawrence asked for a trade in late November. SBI Soccer’s Ives Galarcep, who was first to report it, stated that the request came after the Red Bulls refused to renegotiate his contract. Lawrence is the sixth-highest paid left-back in MLS, $383k a year.

An interview by MLSsoccer.com’s Tom Bogert revealed Lawrence’s motivations more clearly. “I just don’t feel appreciated,” Lawrence told Bogert. “I’ve played for you for five seasons; what more is there to show?”

A new era of player empowerment for MLS?

Lawrence, a 27-year-old, is wary of the Red Bulls’ history of discarding aging players. Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Luis Robles, and Bradley Wright-Phillips have been let go in recent years as NYRB mine younger talent. “Is this club gonna figure out how to work with him after he turns 30?…” Lawrence said, per Bogert’s Twitter thread. “I get the Red Bulls are always trying to make a decision that’s best for them, but when do you look on my side and be like what’s best for Kemar? They won’t, so I have to look out for me.”

We’re not used to seeing this sort of ideology from MLS players. The quotes above sound like they could have come from the NBA. 

Player empowerment is more of a thing across the sports landscape, and it was only a matter of time before it significantly affected MLS.

Darlington Nagbe wanted and got a move from Atlanta United to Columbus, where he will play in his home state for his college coach. Lee Nguyen asked for a trade out of New England last year. Justin Meram asked out of Columbus before 2018. Lawrence is the most recent example of a player wanting a trade, clearly spelling out his rationale: He wants to be respected by his club more, and he wants fair compensation.

MLS’ unique system complicates movement

MLS, as you might have learned, is unique among soccer leagues. It combines both ordinary soccer roster machinations (i.e., transfers) with American elements.

There are trades and a draft, though that draft is decreasing in influence. To make up the difference between MLS and international soccer, there are various other player acquisition methods and processes. International roster spots are in effect and can be traded, and there are multiple off-season player drafts, plus free agency for league veterans. For domestic players, or for guys like Lawrence who have played in MLS for a while, there are certain restrictions on freedom of movement. We’ll see how MLS deals with the questions trade requests bring in the future. The Red Bulls have said they look forward to Lawrence playing in New Jersey next year.

Lawrence’s market is real. He is one of the better left backs in the league, and at 27 he should just be entering his prime. He was a starter on the successful Red Bulls teams of the last half-decade. Winning clubs would love to have a left-back who doesn’t take up an international slot and can play effectively up and down the flank. 

Any team acquiring him will have to pay him. Graham Zusi is making $688k in Kansas City; Lawrence could ask for something along those lines. Given the value that having a quality left-back provides in MLS, a number of teams could be willing to pay that price. The value the Red Bulls would recoup in a trade may decrease with the public knowledge of Lawrence’s request. 

LAFC could poke around Lawrence’s market. The Chicago Fire have numerous holes, and should want to win immediately as they enter a new stadium. Even Atlanta United, who are locked in a contract battle with Julian Gressel, are ambiguous tactically and could use Lawrence’s services. The LA Galaxy and Inter Miami might be good fits. 

The wider ramifications of Lawrence’s request will be interesting to see play out over the next couple of months.

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