What Luciano Acosta’s Looming Transfer Means for MLS

Posted By Harrison Hamm on April 23, 2019

When a 21-year-old Luciano Acosta arrived in D.C. on loan from Boca Juniors three years ago, questions of his longevity swirled. An eventual transfer to Europe or back to South America loomed as almost an expected outcome. Much would depend on his success in MLS, of course, but players in his situation are often seen as short-term core pieces.

It is a set-up unique to soccer, and can be tricky to handle for fans who understandably want to see their good players stick around. There might be another talent around the corner, acquired with funds from the previous star, but that new talent might not be as good as the old. In Acosta’s situation, DC United supporters naturally were wary of an Acosta departure, even from the beginning. Their club has little history of spending in the transfer market.

Since his initial arrival, Acosta has emerged as a legitimate superstar in this league after a couple years of middling production, and now, at 24, is looking at an imminent move to Europe. It will be a bigger fee and a bigger club than expected at the beginning, with a January PSG move falling through in the final hours and reports indicating that Manchester United and Lyon are interested.

But what if D.C. United don’t want to see him go? What if they view him as a core player for years to come?

Can DCU keep Acosta?

D.C. will at least shoot their shot in this arena. They have apparently tabled a “competitive” contract extension, according to ESPN’s Sebastian Salazar, that could secure Acosta’s services for years. It would be a major move, one that would set a new and fascinating precedent amid MLS’s growth into a selling league.

Convincing him to stay might be completely unrealistic. Legendary clubs are on high alert. At 24, the time is now for Acosta to establish himself in a big league and potentially challenge for first team minutes immediately. A player with Acosta’s age, skill level and background has not chosen to remain in MLS above a European move before.

It seems unlikely that Acosta would want to stay at this point. But if he did, an interesting hypothetical would present itself. D.C. might have trouble declining a big-money offer from Manchester United even if the alternative is retaining their star player, and thus extending their years of contention with Wayne Rooney. MLS, and its fans, might jump at the opportunity to complete a lucrative transfer, one that ups the league’s reputation internationally.

It’s hard to argue that keeping a superstar around is a bad outcome. Of course, that changes if the superstar doesn’t want to be around. But consider a scenario in which Acosta desires an extension in MLS. That would solve the thorny dilemma fans face in seeing a top player depart, and help assure DCU contention in the future. MLS would surely be thrilled with a legitimate superstar, at 24 years old, choosing to stay in the league.

But that is not the scenario that presents itself, and understandably so — even the most devout MLS advocate would have to agree with Acosta’s decision to head overseas and test himself at a big club. In the abstract, proclaiming a move to Europe as positive is not the greatest approach, but in Acosta’s situation this looks like the right move.

If and when it happens, it will be another stepping stone in MLS’s quest to become a true selling league. Acosta will be the latest in a varied string of players to move overseas, and will surely not be the last. Assuming he leaves for a fee (and a fairly significant one), it will be another feather in MLS’s cap, another player who proves the league’s viability as a destination for young players looking to transition to bigger things at some point. It is a good path, and one that will cultivate a positive international reputation for the league.

Still, it can be hard to convince skeptical fans that getting rid of a young star player is actually a good thing. To retain trust, DCU have to use the funds they acquire for Acosta. That means going out and getting another Acosta, and making another profit. It also means investing in their own youth development and trusting players out of their academy — which, to their credit, they have improved in the last couple of years.

One clear benefit of being a selling league is the theoretical sustainability of it. Buy low, enjoy a couple of good and fun years out of a player, and sell on for profit. If you can go through that process with a Homegrown player (a la Tyler Adams, Alphonso Davies, etc.), that’s even better, because it means you’re buying at zero, not simply buying low.

This is MLS’s future, and Acosta is only the latest example. More and more candidates within MLS — both younger stars like Alberth Elis and Homegrowns like D.C.’s own Chris Durkin — will likely depart for Europe at some point.

Teams have to sustain that cycle to be competitive. D.C. are already staring down the next stage of the cycle.

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