Interview with Columbus Morfaw, Player Relations & Competition at MLS
In the last few years, the Major League Soccer has made some massive steps ahead in the mission of achieving the goal it has set for itself: to be ranked among the world’s best leagues by 2022. Thanks to the development of the academies to grow home-made talents, the creation of state-of-the-art stadiums and facilities, the expansion plan that will increase the number of teams to 27 by 2021, the improvement of scouting and recruiting processes, and many other little – and not so little – details, the MLS has already become an entirely different association that it used to be.
During our last Wyscout Forum, held at the beautiful Johan Cruijff ArenA in Amsterdam last November, we had the chance to meet Columbus Morfaw, Player Relations & Competition at Major League Soccer, who gave us some interesting insight about the league, how it has improved in the last years and which are its plans for the future. Then, a friendly chat became a proper interview, with the goal of allowing Wyscout Blog readers to better understand how this league works and why you should really believe them when they say they want to become one of the world’s best.
1. First of all, can you explain to us something more about your role as Manager in Player Relations & Competition at Major League Soccer?
Our Player Relations department supports all of our current and future MLS clubs in their player acquisition and player development efforts, as well as ensures that the teams remain compliant with our roster regulations and player acquisition guidelines. Additionally, the department works closely with the Product Strategy Committee, our Chief Soccer Officers and ultimately the Board of Governors to ensure we are making strategic decisions to continually enhance the product on the field.
My role on the team specifically involves adding a layer of research, strategy and insights on players that further informs the decisions MLS clubs (alongside the league) make in the area of player development and in the transfer market.
2. The organization within MLS is very different from most of the European leagues. Can you tell us something more about the league and the players’ and owners’ associations?
Major League Soccer has a ‘single-entity’ structure, meaning the league owns all the clubs and intellectual property and employs all the players who join MLS. What this means in the context of player acquisitions is that while clubs handle the scouting and identification of potential transfer market targets, the players are signed to a contract with MLS. Our Player Department ensures that key deal points (including player salary, transfer fee and contract length) fit into the parameters set forth in the league’s overarching roster rules and guidelines.
3. Back in the day, the MLS was only considered as a retirement plan for European footballers at the twilight of their careers. Now, the league has one of the most interesting landscapes of young talented footballers. How has the MLS gone from one point to the other?
We have seen a significant shift in strategy around the player acquisition and the results have been very positive on the field. That shift in strategy is a direct result of research we have conducted – research of the on-field product, as well as with our fans.
Major League Soccer is not just scouting but is attracting top talent from around the world in the prime, or just before the prime years of players’ careers. Players that have been capped by their national teams and that have options around the globe, but choose MLS as their league of choice for the advancement of their careers.
This focus on young talented players is driven by two aspects: acquiring players with appreciating asset value and developing top talent that will make a meaningful impact on the first team while also representing opportunities in the transfer market.
Miguel Almiron is a great example of the first. He not only provided a high level of productivity for his team, Atlanta United but also represented the potential for a strong return in the transfer market. Clearly, we saw that with his recent transfer to Newcastle. Additionally, focusing on the development and signing of young academy players is an important part of our league. Just more than a decade into the process of establishing our own academies, we have seen strong talents such as Tyler Adams lead the New York Red Bulls to a Supporters’ Shield before transferring to Red Bull Leipzig. We’ve seen Alphonso Davies as a standout for the Vancouver Whitecaps who has now been transferred to Bayern Munich for, what was at the time, a record transfer fee.
These two areas of focus are driving this youth movement on the field for our MLS clubs.
4. How important was the scouting area in creating this generation of American and foreign footballers? Which were the main steps in the growth process?
Scouting is a significant part of the initial identification of players both domestically through our academies as well as abroad. Every clubs has its process, and as you are aware, most of our clubs use the Wyscout platform.
5. Will this new injection of talent help clubs to attract big names in their prime?
MLS is a league of choice now for top talent in the prime of their careers. With other options on the table, Josef Martinez, our 2018 Golden Boot winner, re-signed with Atlanta United; South American Player of the Year Pity Martinez, who was just called up to represent Argentina just joined from River Plate. Players see the opportunities provided by MLS clubs to advance their careers in a highly competitive league while training in top of the line new training facilities and in front of passionate fanbases.
While the injection of talent shines a light on MLS and its clubs, the opportunities that players see upon learning more about the league and its teams are truly what is attracting players to want to be a part of this league.
6. We recently featured an article on our blog, pointing out the most promising talents of the league. Do you think there are going to be more and more wonderkids in the MLS in the next years? Can the Major League Soccer become a primary market for European clubs in seek for talented footballers?
The mission of our academies is to create top talent for MLS first teams. That talent will, of course, attract the interest of clubs around the world and we are currently experiencing tangible examples of that global recognition with a number of high profile transfers to top clubs internationally.
MLS is part of the global transfer market and players will be transferred internationally – and of course, our clubs will benefit from that financially. But our approach is a balanced one and our primary focus with player development is producing talent for our MLS clubs. Some will be transferred, and some will play their full career in MLS – just as it is with all top leagues around the world.
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) July 25, 2018
7. Thanks to FC Cincinnati, the MLS will count as much as 24 clubs in 2019, set to become 26 in 2020 with Miami and Nashville clubs’ arrival, 27 with Austin in 2021, with plans to expand to 28 teams. Does this growth in terms of clubs participating in the league help to attract more young talented players to the MLS?
Every expansion club joining our league has the task of building a team capable of competing immediately. As a result, many of our expansion clubs have signed young dynamic international players as part of their initial squad (Miguel Almiron, for example, joined Atlanta during their initial season in 2017). The league has developed initiatives that facilitate our clubs’ investment in the transfer market, and we expect even more high-quality players to join in upcoming seasons.