Everyone knows that feeling when they’re out shopping of making that perfect discovery. You pull that sweet vintage shirt off the rack and marvel at the knocked-down price. You find a 36-inch plasma TV at Best Buy that’s marked down far lower than its equals.
And yet there’s that little label that gives you pause: “As is.”
Maybe the stitching is a little irregular on that shirt. Or that box the TV comes in is already opened, hastily re-sealed with packing tape. That crazy deal you’re getting comes with a massive caveat: The thing you’re about to plunk down on is somehow inherently flawed. But it could be as good as a shiny new one. Maybe.
Do you have the stomach for the risk involved? Will the payoff be worth it?
It’s a relevant analogy over the past few weeks in Major League Soccer, as there seems to have been an unusually large influx of players into the league who are just like that shirt: They’ve got a history of injuries that could give one pause. Yet teams have taken a flier on them, ostensibly, because they’ve determined the risk-reward ratio is worth the trouble.
Some are major gambles involving big investments, both financially and commitment-wise. Some are lesser wagers, where teams have little to lose by waiting to see how it goes. But it’s been an interesting look into the varying levels of how MLS clubs manage risk.
The Portland Timbers are sitting on both extremes right now. The more alarming is the saga surrounding José Adolfo Valencia. The Timbers have committed Designated Player money to “El Trencito,” betting on the young Colombian to be a massive impact player for the second-year squad.
And yet we still aren’t sure what’s ailing Valencia (at right), who hasn’t trained with his new team in more than a week as he undergoes more testing from the Timbers medical staff.
Whatever the problem is, we have to assume Portland were well aware before they signed him. Timbers owner Merritt Paulson told ExtraTime Radio on Monday that the club wasn’t able to run the full battery of physicals on Valencia before he arrived in the Pacific Northwest, but the 20-year-old’s issues will not affect the club’s long-term commitment to him.
Still, it’s a bit of a scary situation for Timbers fans, to say nothing of what club insiders are likely going through right now.
The other end of the spectrum is Charles Renken, who Portland signed earlier this week after the US youth international slipped through waivers after coming home from Hoffenheim. The Timbers effectively have nothing to lose with the 18-year-old playmaker, who has shown glimpses of being an enormously good player – the catch is those two ACL blow-outs a year apart that have limited his maturation into that supposedly can’t-miss prospect.
Still, the potential was worth it for Portland to claim the Zambia-born Renken for a song. If he works out, great. If not, the team essentially loses nothing in the process.
Two big-time defenders are also in similar situations. On Monday, the New York Red Bulls finally landed Wilman Conde to shore up their back line, bringing the big Colombian defender back to MLS after two years in Mexico.
Is he the same beast who was nails for Chicago for the better part of four seasons, a two-time All-Star and an MLS Best XI selection in 2009? That’s open for debate. Conde had surgery on his injured left ankle in April, which effectively ended his stint with Atlas.
Now, he’s stepping right into the Red Bulls central defense, expected to rediscover that monster presence for Hans Backe, essentially replace Tim Ream and, especially, be a cure-all for a defense that ranked as the league’s worst on set pieces in 2011 and had a knack for collapsing at key moments.
“I almost rate him as the best center back in the league,” Backe told the New York Post.
Red Bulls fans are hoping the reward is worth the risk.
Which brings us to Emiliano Dudar, D.C. United’s recent signing for their own back line. The mammoth 6-foot-4 Argentine (at right) certainly comes with a pedigree, named the Swiss league’s best defender in 2009. And if he delivers on that promise, he’ll surely help United with their own defensive problems.
But what isn’t getting talked about as much is a scary incident back in the fall of 2010 when Dudar was involved in a head-to-head collision so severe that doctors actually had to put him into a medically induced coma to relieve swelling in his brain. Dudar missed three months before taking a pitch again.
Granted, this occurred nearly a year-and-a-half ago. But when you sign for a club where a handful of former players have suffered from various head trauma-related issues, well, it gives you some pause.
The hope is, obviously, that none of these players will be plagued by their prior issues, that the risk their new teams are taking on each of them is entirely worth it. But their clubs are also in the insurance business, too: They’re dealing in risk management, and only they can make the determination of what exactly their tolerance level is.
John O’Brien, in one of his guest columns for The New York Times during the 2010 World Cup, wrote of the idea of risk displacement. Simply stated, if a risk is taken in one area, it makes another area safer. Whether that holds true for these players remains to be seen, but O’Brien certainly knows a thing or two about injuries hampering a promising career.
MLS clubs know the way the “as is” game works. There are no refunds or exchanges. Only the hope that the reward is greater than the risks involved.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.