Wiebe: Balotelli-to-DC chatter portends an ambitious summer for MLS

Mario Balotelli - close-up - looking into the distance - playing for Nice

I don’t know if Mario Balotelli is on his way to Major League Soccer in the summer. Right now, if I had to guess, neither does Mario Balotelli. What I do know is the summer silly season is already well underway, and it promises to be the silliest yet in the history of this league.

My reasoning here is pretty simple. It takes money – up front, over the course of the contract and often a whole lot of both – to be a major player in the transfer market. This summer, with a World Cup stoking the fire, MLS clubs will have more spending power, more ambition and more international appeal than ever before.

There’s no denying ante has been upped when it comes to transfer fees, player profile and overall spending. All 23 teams have sweet, sweet discretionary TAM burning a hole in their pockets. There are 15 unfilled Designated Player slots around the league, and even more available should clubs decide to buy down any of their current DPs.

With more money in play, this window comes down to one question for MLS clubs: Does this player help us get better – first on the field, second off the field and, ideally, both? If the answer is yes, and the economics make sense, time to pull the trigger.

All of which brings us back to Balotelli. Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl says D.C. United are prepared to go from one DP to three this summer to help christen the brand-new Audi Field. According to Wahl’s sources, D.C. have been in contact with Balotelli’s representatives. Should they sign him, it would one of the biggest transfer coups in MLS history.

No matter whether you love or hate Balotelli – give me an entertainer all day, every day and twice on Soccer Sundays – we’re talking about an elite center forward with a global profile here. He is arguably, perhaps in direct competition with someone who just moved to Los Angeles, the most interesting man in soccer.

The 27-year-old is in his prime and his contract with Ligue 1’s Nice, where he’s scored 22 goals in 33 games this season and 39 in 61 overall, is up in June. His agent, Mino Raiola, also represents one Zlatan Ibrahimovic and says his client “has matured into one of the top 10 strikers in the world.”

Translation: Balotelli won’t come cheap, not with no transfer fee required and Raiola also teasing that he was negotiating with “many clubs in England and Italy” just a month ago.

But as a general rule, club-changing signings don’t come cheap. Just ask Toronto FC.

There’s no doubt Balotelli would change both the perception and the competitive identity of D.C. United, or any MLS team, for that matter. And that’s exactly what D.C., rumored to be on the verge of a change in ownership, ought to be looking for this summer, a player who can elevate a proud club that’s been waiting more than a decade for a stadium of their own to compete financially with the league’s top teams.

Don’t forget that D.C. United were Toronto FC before Toronto FC were.

They were the team that spent on what were then high-priced imports in the form of Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno – still two of the greatest in league history. They were the team that lured a national team star in his prime back to MLS in the form of John Harkes. They were the team that picked up core pieces in the SuperDraft (Eddie Pope and Jesse Marsch). They won the double, then went back-to-back in MLS Cup. They were the team that won the Concacaf Champions League (or Champions Cup, as it was known in 1998).

D.C. have been to the mountaintop and while it’s fair to question whether the institutional memory remains in Washington, there’s no question the blueprint does. All they have to do is look north and see that TFC are using it right now.

So let’s say for kicks and giggles that Super Mario lands in the nation’s capital this summer, ideally debuting on July 14, a day before the 2018 FIFA World Cup final and the same day Audi Field comes online. Imagine the hoopla. Imagine the transformation that comes with having arguably the best player in MLS wear black and red. Imagine the Sebastian Giovinco-esque – or even Marco Etcheverry-esque – impact a player of Balotelli’s quality could have on this side of the Atlantic.

Imagine it, because deals like this are MLS’s present and future. Imagine it, because there’s no telling what will actually happen this summer.