D.C. United and Luka Modric: Have we not learned anything?

Luka Modric of Real Madrid during the Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Madrid CF at Coliseum Alfonso Perez on January 4, 2020 in Getafe, Spain. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Luka Modric of Real Madrid during the Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Madrid CF at Coliseum Alfonso Perez on January 4, 2020 in Getafe, Spain. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images) /

D.C. United are reportedly chasing Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric. But have we not learned anything about smart team recruitment in MLS? Star Europeans as DPs do not necessarily work.

The ageing superstar. They have been the heartbeat of Major League Soccer for the past decade. From David Beckham and the invention of the Designated Player rule to the expansion to three DPs and the dominance of the LA Galaxy founded on these players’ input, MLS has largely been defined by the European superstars that come to play in the league to close out their careers.

Both the positive signings, like Robbie Keane, Beckham, Thierry Henry and David Villa, among plenty of others, and the less so positive signings — Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard most prominently spring to mind — help shape the landscape of both their teams and the entire league.

But as MLS has evolved, which has been an especially rapid process in the past two or three years with the wild expansion and different strategies from teams like Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United, so has the efficacy of such signings.

While there are still the obvious hits, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that there are only three DP slots for each team demands that they are used intelligently and to their best effect, and given that the general level of the league is higher than it has ever been, using one of three DP slots on a soon-to-be-retiring European star is not always wise.

In fact, some of the best teams in MLS have veered away from this approach. Toronto FC signed Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Pozuelo and Sebastian Giovinco at a younger age, while an older Jermain Defoe flamed out. Seattle has turned to South America with Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro, as have Atlanta United, LAFC and plenty of other teams this offseason, who are breaking their club transfer records to sign Liga MX and South American talent, like Sporting KC, Vancouver and Columbus. This, it seems, is the future of MLS.

And then we have D.C. United. With the departures of Wayne Rooney, Luciano Acosta and Lucas Rodriguez, Ben Olsen’s side need an offensive rebuild. It started with Ola Kamara at the end of last season, but they could still do with a creative attacking midfielder and at least one wide attacker.

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Initially, it was reported that they were set to raid Liga MX, signing Edison Flores and chasing Brian Lozano. However, now it has surfaced that D.C. United are considering a move for Luka Modric, whose contract expires in the summer and is now free to sign a pre-contract agreement. Per Pablo Maurer of The Athletic, D.C. United have entered into discussions regarding potentially acquiring Modric, with the Croatian possibly moving Stateside as soon as this summer.

Now, it could be that Modric is another European success story. He is still playing at a very high level for both Madrid and Croatia, having been named the Ballon D’Or winner in 2018, although is slowly being rotated out of the Real Madrid starting line-up at 34 years old. But he could also be physically washed up and unable to play at the intensity and level that D.C. United require. And given that he offers no re-sale value, any investment, which would be vast at wages reported to be in the $5-6 million range, would be empty.

In contrast, Flores and/or Lozano represent a younger, more vibrant, future-aware investment. Both are 25 years of age. They would not be cheap, of course, but their wages would certainly not be so extortionate and a sale would allow D.C. to recoup value.

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More generally, MLS has veered away from the Modric-like signings and towards the Lozanos and Flores’s. D.C. United can now keep up with the times or they could revert to the old MLS type. It might be time to embrace the modern approach.