Boston College forward Charlie Davies could have been the first pick in this month's MLS SuperDraft. But Davies refused MLS' contract offer and instead signed with Hammarby IF in Sweden last month.
Benny Feilhaber (Hamburg), Lee Nguyen (PSV Eindhoven) and Robbie Rogers (Heerenveen) would have been MLS first-rounders last year but decided to go overseas.
U.S. collegiate players are not necessarily snubbing the MLS, but their awareness of options does seem to be increasing.
The MLS offered Davies a contract worth more than $1 million over six years, plus bonuses and a sponsorship deal. Besides making Davies among the MLS' highest-paid players, this indicated the league also was going to promote him.
So Davies is risking a lot by taking his chances in Europe. Davies performed well during a tryout at AFC Ajax, but that was a long shot, since Ajax considered him too inexperienced for first-team consideration. As Boston College coach Ed Kelly said, "Not many players go from college to Manchester United, Ajax or Chelsea."
When Ajax did not offer Davies a contract, his next move was crucial. If Davies continued going to tryouts and failed to sign, it might have raised questions about him. Even if a club with Ajax's prestige had contracted Davies, he might not have become a first-team regular. Instead, Davies went to Stockholm, taking Hammarby up on an offer that was similar to the MLS deal.
But as one of three foreign players with Hammarby, Davies will be given every chance to succeed. If Davies scores goals, the club will be more than willing to expose him to transfer offers. And this is an important difference between the Allsvenskan clubs and the MLS.
Davies was influenced by the experiences of his contemporaries, Freddy Adu and Chad Barrett, and others such as Clint Dempsey.
The MLS basically broke the bank -- or at least the salary-cap barrier -- in signing Adu, then rigged the draft so he could play for D.C. United. Davies wanted a similar deal, plus a guarantee he would play for D.C. or New England. This might have been unrealistic, but it doesn't hurt to ask, especially if you are prepared to have your bluff called.
Barrett had basically been in Davies' position two years ago; he started for the U.S. in the FIFA U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands, with Davies being the last player cut from the team. Barrett signed with MLS, and then European clubs became interested in him. Real Madrid told an agent it would offer $1 million for Barrett, the transfer stalling in its tracks after the agent explained that: (a) the offer would have to be made through MLS; and (b) it was likely to be rejected. Barrett's stock has not improved since then, and he has two years remaining on his contract before he can again be recruited by European clubs.
Dempsey is on the verge of a move to England but has had to pull some strings to get out of his MLS contract.
Davies, 20, differs from Adu, Barrett and Dempsey because he has been preparing to move to Europe for some time, partly because of the influence of his father, Kofi, who moved from Gambia to New England in the 1970s. Like Feilhaber, Nguyen and Rogers, he has enlisted agents with the right European connections.
Some who have followed Davies' progress believe he would benefit from playing on a reserve team in France or Germany so he can mature and improve his tactical awareness. But Hammarby apparently was attracted by Davies' scoring instincts and speed, traits which need to be honed in game situations.
Hammarby is among Scandinavia's historic clubs, founded in 1897. Hammarby produced one of European soccer's most spectacular and tragic figures, Lennart "Nacka" Skoglund, who found fame and infamy in Italy but died at age 46. Rod Stewart, who had a stint with Brentford FC before becoming an entertainer, was so impressed by the Skoglund legend he invested in Hammarby IF. But Hammarby, which supports several sports, including ice hockey, also attracted a more serious investor with Anschutz Entertainment Group -- no coincidence the team will train at The Home Depot Center from Jan. 15-30.
Hammarby will be competing on three fronts in upcoming months -- the Royal League, Allsvenskan and Intertoto Cup. Davies should get thrown quickly into the mix, and nobody will care if he was once a potential No. 1 draft choice. Like Feilhaber and the others, Davies will simply have to produce.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.