Why are there not more transfers between Major League Soccer and Australia’s A-League? That question has reverberated across the Pacific Ocean in recent years, as the two leagues have increasingly been compared in favourable terms.
The starting point is always the relative youth of the current iteration of top flight football in each country and is quickly followed by common language and mostly non-overlapping schedules.
On the face it seems obvious – there should be more interaction between MLS and the A-League.
Enter Jeremy Brockie, the 25-year old New Zealand international with 34 caps and nearly 100 appearances in the A-League dating to the inaugural season of 2005/06.
He scored in the 2008 Olympics and was a substitute at South Africa 2010. Last season, Brockie finished second in the A-League’s golden boot, scoring 16 times in 25 Wellington Phoenix matches.
A versatile and dangerous attacker, Brockie will join Toronto FC on loan by mid-May and spend the summer in MLS.
New Toronto manager Ryan Nelsen, who captained the All Whites throughout Brockie’s international career, facilitated the deal, said Phoenix General Manager David Dome:
“We trusted Ryan from the outset, and of course he knows the player very well – so he knows exactly what he’s getting.
“We know that TFC has great facilities and of course the MLS is a well-respected competition so we knew we could rely on Jeremy being looked after well.”
While at least a dozen players have spent time in each league in the eight years since the A-League’s founding, Brockie’s short-term move will be just the second loan.
In 2008, Fred returned to the A-League during the MLS offseason but he played just three times for Wellington before a family emergency cut short his loan. Fred had already been a star at Melbourne Victory prior to his Phoenix loan, so the comparison is not exactly fair.
If observers believe clubs in each league could benefit from further interaction, why are such moves relatively rare?
“Strategically we have been keen on a relationship with an MLS team and while we’ve made a few tentative approaches, nothing has come of it,” Dome said. “Without the personal link, these are often difficult.”
Wellington now has that connection in Nelsen, who, despite never playing for the Phoenix or even in the A-League, is a legend in his home country.
Nelsen has also used his connections across the Atlantic to acquire Hogan Ephraim on loan from Queens Park Rangers.
Dome was appointed General Manager in Wellington in 2007. Over the past six seasons, he has brought Tony Lochhead, Simon Elliott, Michael Boxall and Ian Hogg into the club directly from MLS and gave Alex Smith his first real opportunity after a brief time at Gold Coast United in 2011.
The Phoenix have taken advantage of the head start MLS enjoys in facilities, stature and quality of play – a combination they hope benefit Brockie and the club.
“I would say that it makes a lot of sense for the two clubs to do more business like this in the future if there is a chance,” Dome added.
“From here, it may start off by being simply an exchange of ideas. I can’t see any reason why there couldn’t be more interaction.”
At the moment, the Phoenix do not have a manager, having parted ways with Ricki Herbert, who is the All Whites manager and the only coach at Wellington to this point.
No other player movement with Toronto will take place until a new manager is secured.
The circumstances in Wellington, now that Nelsen is in charge at Toronto, make a compelling case for interactivity on a new level between the two leagues.
For example, Dome indicated the Phoenix have invested heavily in sports science and could be willing to share that expertise with Toronto as the relationship progresses.
Yet there are few other instances of close ties between A-League and MLS clubs.
Portland Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson played for Perth Glory, a club now in the A-League, and has brought New Zealanders to the Timbers in the past.
Wilkinson keeps tabs on the A-League and has sought players like Marcos Flores and Kosta Barbarouses in recent years, though only Hogg and Jake Gleeson have made the move to Portland directly from Oceania, and neither was in the A-League at the time.
Brockie’s loan to Toronto seems like a good first step in a developing relationship between two clubs that are exactly the same age. Surely other clubs will watch closely to see how Brockie fares as they consider potential moves.
Perhaps, then, the question at the outset should be, why are there not more loans between MLS and the A-League?
After all, Dome cannot be alone in saying, “We’re keen on exposing our players to the best opportunities as long as it’s safe, positive for the player and ultimately is going to improve them as a footballer.”