Just about 11 months ago, Obafemi Martins made the move of the MLS offseason when he left the Seattle Sounders to sign a huge deal with Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua.
This winter, it's possible some players could move in the opposite direction.
The Chinese Football Association announced on Monday that Chinese Super League clubs would be allowed to field a maximum of three non-Chinese players per game. Previously, teams were allowed to field one non-Chinese player from the Asian confederation plus three non-Asian foreigners per match.
The new rule will go into effect at the start of the 2017 CSL season, which kicks off on March 4. It’ll cause some immediate issues for Chinese clubs who have spent hugely to lure big-name internationals in recent years, forcing them to either cut the playing time of some of their foreign signings or cut bait with them entirely.
It could also create some opportunities for MLS clubs, with a source telling me on Wednesday that one MLS team has already submitted an offer for a European player currently in the CSL since Monday’s rule change was announced.
Because the new rule was implemented after many of the 16 Chinese Super League clubs had already signed their full quota of foreign players for the 2017 season, teams who now find themselves with a surplus of internationals on their roster are scrambling. Many foreign players in China likely won’t be content with being a reserve in the CSL, while the Chinese clubs who paid large sums for said foreign players won’t want to see their big investments forced into part-time roles.
That should turn China into a very friendly market, with the source expecting many CSL clubs to try to arrange for loans for the fourth- and fifth-most talented foreign players on their roster.
The timing of the new rule will make it tough for Chinese clubs to get full value for those players, however. It leaves them with little leverage in negotiations, as clubs from other leagues, MLS included, know CSL teams are facing a choice between offloading their foreign players and paying them a high salary to sit on the bench.
MLS teams are particularly well-positioned to take advantage of a potential exodus from China. Unlike European clubs, most of which are currently in the middle of their season and have less than two weeks left in the January transfer window, MLS teams still have plenty of time to sign and integrate players ahead of the start of the 2017 campaign on March 3. They have the flexibility to either strike quickly for non-Chinese players currently in the CSL or bide their time and wait for fees to drop as the start of the CSL season approaches.
The truly big-name internationals in the CSL, guys like Carlos Tevez, Oscar and Hulk, likely aren’t going anywhere. But more value is now available elsewhere on Chinese Super League rosters, and MLS clubs would be foolish to not at least take a look at the increasingly attractive market.