Before the Galaxy could land its three latest European stars, the front office had to persuade a skeptical group of Major League Soccer executives that the deals didn’t violate the league’s restrictive salary guidelines.
“That took a little political work to make that happen,” Bruce Arena, the Galaxy’s coach and general manager, said. “Whenever we do anything, everyone in the league is there giving their opinion whether we can do it or not.”
With reason, because no MLS club has been more ambitious or more creative in finding ways to work within the salary rules. So the other clubs had reason to be suspicious when the Galaxy submitted contracts to the league for Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong, Belgian defender Jelle Van Damme and English back Ashley Cole that appeared to have a few zeros missing.
De Jong, a two-time World Cup starter who once commanded a $26-million transfer fee, is joining the Galaxy for $500,000. His signing will be formally announced Wednesday.
Van Damme, a rugged center back and one of the best-paid players in Belgium, also signed for $500,000, and Cole, a Champions League winner and arguably the most decorated defender in English national team history, will get $300,000. Those deals were announced last week.
The Galaxy didn’t even have to pay a transfer fee, getting three experienced starters for a combined $1.3-million salary, or less than what it paid former defender Omar Gonzalez last season.
And it was “100% by the book,” said a person with knowledge of the discussions but who was not allowed to speak about them publicly. “It’s a credit to the Galaxy that they were able to get these guys for way below the market value. The reason they’re able to do this is they’re outsmarting everybody.”
In two of the recent signings, the Galaxy essentially financed the deals using other people’s money.
De Jong, 31, began the year owed more than $7 million on a contract extension he signed last summer with AC Milan, where he had been benched by new Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic. That gave De Jong the leverage to negotiate a lucrative buyout, making him willing to accept a cut-rate deal with the Galaxy that included a promise of playing time.
De Jong’s agreement includes options for the next two MLS seasons when his salary will rise markedly since he’ll assume the designated-player spot midfielder Steven Gerrard will vacate after this year.
Cole, 35, who hasn’t played in a league game in more than 10 months, also had money left on his multimillion-dollar contract with Roma. But the club was as eager as Cole to reach a buyout that made his Galaxy deal palatable as well.
“All three of these players were in unique situations with their clubs,” Arena said. “Obviously, their ability to separate from those clubs in the right manner allowed for them to come to MLS and deal with salaries that are within our guidelines.”
Arena said the three players were on his radar for months but gettng them proved complicated.
First, the Galaxy had to clear space on its roster to stay under the league’s $3.7-million payroll cap. That didn’t happen until late December, when the Galaxy worked out deals with the Mexican league to ship out Gonzalez and veteran midfielder Juninho, saving more than $1.6 million in salary and earning a reported $2.25 million in transfer fees.
Next came protracted negotiations between the European clubs and agents for the three players to get them released during the January transfer window. In the case of De Jong, the most complicated acquisition because of his big contract, the Galaxy reached out to Lyle Yorks, an agent who played for Arena at the University of Virginia, to help guide the talks.
“There was an awful lot of legwork that goes on behind the scenes to make this stuff happen,” said Arena, who in December sent team administrator Zack Murshedi to Rome to meet with Cole, and technical director Jovan Kirovski and assistant coach Kenny Arena to Belgium to see Van Damme.
By late January, all three deals were far enough along the Galaxy was ready to present them to the league for approval.
Last year, the team had manipulated MLS salary guidelines to add Gerrard, a former English national team captain, and Giovani dos Santos, a two-time World Cup starter for Mexico, as designated players. Now it had found an even more creative way to add three more experienced internationals.
But to hear De Jong tell it, there were no losers: The players got their money, the Galaxy got its players and MLS got three more big names to build around.
“It was in the back of my mind that I wanted to play in the United States and specifically in the MLS,” De Jong said by phone from Milan. “This was the perfect opportunity to come now, when I’m still fit.
“So that made me decide just to come over and play for a huge club like the Galaxy.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11