Like many people with a keen ear directed toward European soccer, San Jose Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop was keeping abreast of the flood of transfer day deadline deals that were being executed last Thursday. One name was all that he was listening for — rather, one name he preferred not to hear at all — was that of his projected starting winger for the 2013 MLS season, Simon Dawkins.
But with only hours remaining in the bedlam that surrounds the secondary transfer window slamming shut, a somewhat low-key deal in comparison to others that day was agreed between Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Dawkins was on his way to Birmingham on a six-month loan. Spurs had found a suitor for the 25-year old Englishman that didn’t play their home games at Buck Shaw Stadium.
“We put in a great offer to Tottenham,” said Yallop to a small band of reporters prior to Tuesday’s team training session, “and they thought about it. I thought it was a great offer, to be honest. With the way our league works, it was a good large amount of money that would have helped Tottenham and secured Simon.”
Given the complexities of player contracts within MLS, Yallop was likely referring to a deal that involved a transfer fee to Spurs and a hefty contract (Dawkins is reported to have made only $50,000 in each of the past two seasons with San Jose, according to the MLS Players Union) for the still under contract midfielder. The deal has been on the table since late last year, but with Spurs perhaps looking for more value for the rehabilitated Dawkins, it collected dust through the New Year and month of January.
“They didn’t accept it,” explained Yallop. “They wanted more. And there’s not much you can really do. Then it’s kind of a waiting game, and at the last minute on the last day of the signing deadline, he goes to Aston Villa.
“Nothing we can do about that,” he paused, “at all.”
The failure to bring back Dawkins to San Jose will sting at first — especially given the dearth of healthy Starting XI-level players currently in preseason camp — but Yallop and the technical staff, who just a month ago expected the midfielder back with the Earthquakes, have already started the search for a replacement.
“Simon’s spot is the one that’s empty,” said Yallop, “when we were expecting to have him back, so that’s one we need to try and fill. If we can get a player of his quality, that would be great.”
A task that is easier said than done in the modern world of technology that makes finding a Dawkins-level player for a salary just above the league minimum nearly impossible. Yallop mentioned that he and others with the club have been using video scouting software YScout and other resources to find those diamonds in the rough — Sierra Leonean trialists Abu Tommy and Lamin Suma were invited to camp via those efforts — but the pickings will likely be slim.
“To get someone as good as Simon at the price we had is going to be tough,” explained Yallop, “because he was very good for us.”
Not to shy away from the challenge, Yallop echoed a comment made by general manager John Doyle earlier in the preseason that the club is forever vigilant in discovering and following up with players that show the potential to make it in MLS.
“We’re looking and talking and searching and all those things,” outlined Yallop. “We’ve got some irons in the fire here and there, but signing players in never easy, especially this time of year.”
The major European teams — and other leagues around the world playing the FIFA calendar — use the January transfer window as a means to move players around. Typically those players are already under contract, as reportedly Dawkins is with Spurs through spring, and making a move to MLS would require either a loan or a transfer fee. Much of the major influx of top talent to MLS occurs in the summer when other leagues are out of season and many players have become free agents. Dawkins falls into that latter category, so could be a target of the Earthquakes in midseason.”
“June’s a little easier when most of the contracts, especially in Europe, are up,” said Yallop. “So we’ll keep going and have a look at it then.”
So where does that leave Yallop and the Earthquakes now as they prepare for the start of the MLS season on March 3. Does the club rally around their current cast of characters — at least the healthy ones initially — and make a go of it toward a second successive Supporters’ Shield run? Perhaps, especially in light of the state of the roster right now, finding another high-quality signing makes the most sense.
“We’re trying,” responded Yallop. “We’re in talks right now and we’re dong things. I think the big thing for us is making sure that we do not panic. We’re not just going to get anybody to fill his spot; that would be pointless.”
The salary-cap situation is always an issue for teams in MLS, and that is certainly true for San Jose. A record breaking 2012 season saw some players earn raises in their new contracts, while other players await potential beefed up contract extensions. By virtue of their finish at the top of the regular season table in 2012, the Earthquakes do have added allocation money to spend in order to lower total salary budget, Yallop and Doyle have repeatedly stated they are unlikely to use the Designated Player rule to go above the cap. Of course, the team has done it before — signing Geovanni at the tail end of the 2010 season — but that marks the exception to the expenditure rule.
“If the right person comes along, we’ll be ready to look at it closely,” reiterated Yallop. “We have some quality players here that can play, so it would need to be a real top-notch player that we are going to get in to replace Simon Dawkins.”
And so, proverbially, Yallop stands at the threshold of two doors, bags of Dawkins allocated funds at his side. One is marked “Shopping Center” and leads to a cavernous room of international players looking for a big check from MLS. The other simply says “Waiting Room” and contains a small couch facing a television tuned to broadcasts of Aston Villa Football Club matches.
Will Dawkins impress with Villa? He made the bench for the club for last weekend’s 3-3 draw against Everton, and could see his debut this weekend against West Ham United. If Dawkins can help the Villans, who currently stand in the relegation zone near the bottom of the EPL standings, gather enough points to ensure their top-flight safety, then he will almost assuredly garner significant big-money offers within England. For Yallop and the Earthquakes, his return to San Jose is likely predicated on the midfielder having an anonymous spring with Aston Villa, such that Spurs looks to unload him for whatever value they can get.
“Maybe in June, Simon is available,” offered Yallop. “That’s always nice to know. It might not go as well as planned at Villa and he might be available for us.”
Though no one in San Jose wants to wish ill of Dawkins as he prepares to realize his dream of playing in the EPL, mixed emotions will nonetheless be experienced by those watching Villa fight to raise itself out of the relegation quagmire over their final 13 games of the season. Perhaps by then the Earthquakes will have moved on. Perhaps they’ll look again to Tottenham for some sign their club partnership is still strong. Maybe Spurs have other players that they can make available for a stint in MLS.
“I’ll take Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale,” quipped Yallop. “They’re not bad wide players.”
He laughed at the prospect, as did the reporters in attendance, but that third door does not exist for Yallop beyond the hypothetical. Still, the moment of levity was welcomed, because the task at hand of moving beyond the Dawkins era, not so easily mapped out, has already begun.