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At 36, he's just old enough to be hobbled by age and run through by years of playing in three major running cup competitions a year. Milan squeezed just about every droplet of talent from the Roman, who will be 37 by the time he finishes his first full MLS preseason. Assuming he even lasts that long. But he's been touched by genius, enough so that a needy enough MLS club will latch onto his name, his global cache and the steamily romantic fact that he wants us, and use the opportunity to throw some shekels at the Italian. So it has gone in the league since time immemorial.
Perhaps I value the league too much to be saying this, but I don't like it. MLS no longer needs to stoop its head below these low-set door lintels. Leaping when every washed up European international comes calling isn't the best policy, though I recognize his allure. It's not his current form that MLS suitors will see breaking up tackles in their mind's eye, but rather the CL Nesta of the early 2000's. And even in his wisened age, he very well could be a reliable backstop for another year or so. Maybe. He could also hoover up a king's wage, pull a hamstring in his second practice and never play. Both are feasible options.
The eschatological question I pose is not whether Nesta should be pursued by MLS. If the league dictates he has value, then he has value. That's how global markets work. It's also how sports operate, from the free market EPL to the socialist NFL. Rather, my bigger question is what MLS reaps from this harvest. Nesta is a light false step away from a career threatening injury, which will hang ominously over his neck like a guillotine for the rest of his truncated career. Plus, the system is practically encouraging a team like New York or LA to sign somebody like Nesta rather than developing young, exciting players. What incentive would the Red Bulls have to not go for it? In the absence of any depth at all, which was caused by its own dependence on the league's salary cap vis-a-vis the DP rule, these teams will continue to bang their heads into the wall. It's admirable that RSL has been able to flourish under the current cap rules where New York has failed. That doesn't mean they make a ton of sense. Indeed, I'd argue the league is set up in favor of enterprising mid-market teams rather then big money clubs, which inevitably fight for the expensive scraps from Europe's retirees.
These dynamics have been in play in New York since Rafa Marquez touched down. The politics of the matter (i.e. $$$$) tied Backe's hands to such a degree that even when it was painfully obvious that Marquez's form was nowhere near worthy of a start, on he played. Which stunted youth development, and now look where New York's back line is.
Nesta is even older and descended from his high water mark long ago. He will command a salary that will only interest the league's typical takers, and in truth, the thin-as-paper Red Bulls have to be considered frontrunners. But at what cost? The league once again runs clumsily into its position as a nanny state, allowing all clubs to break these salary cap constraints for DPs, all the while only winking at the rich few with the ability to use these exemption rules consistently enough to make them worthwhile.
Now that the league is beginning to break out of its shell, these are exciting conversations to entertain. I have never been one to admonish MLS for taking on aged designated players. Especially early in the process of digging out a trench to allow your endeavor to survive, you do what needs to be done. If Nesta wants MLS, MLS will have him. I have no doubts about that. But I do see the folly in it, and I pine for the days when the league has enough clout to use its development systems and its depth to say that somebody like Nesta can go to Qatar or China or Saudi Arabia. Because MLS doesn't have any particular need for a 36-year-old defender who was on the downslope of his career four years ago.
But as I said, these are theoretical issues that will not interest a team with a leaky back line. Plugging a water leak with a gob of soggy cotton seems better than nothing.
- Will Parchman