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Catching a falling knife: signing players from England

Thoughts on the emergence of a new pipeline from the UK to Harrison

Soccer - npower Football League One - Brentford v Preston North End - Griffin Park
Legendary Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips during his younger days with Brentford FC in the English lower leagues
Photo by Adam Davy - PA Images via Getty Images

There’s a famous financial adage that goes, “Don’t attempt to catch a falling knife.”

When a security is any sort of drop or free fall, some will view this as the opportune time for acquisition because it should be a good deal. However, there is a risk because one does not know the duration or depth of the drop. The attempt to seize upon a deal can lead to an even greater loss, which is why financial advisers often urge investors to not be tempted by a plunging asset. Wait for it to hit bottom or stop falling. Don’t attempt to catch or assume it is stable.

Consider this metaphor at its most basic and least figurative. The sharp knife is falling from a moderate height, and you are attempting to grasp it with your hand before it hits the floor. The best case, with the lowest probability of occurring, is you catch the knife and now have an effective weapon. There’s a chance you miss the knife entirely and it falls to the ground, having neither hurt nor helped you. Of course, there’s the third option where one reaches for the knife – panicked, clumsy, and desperate – and manages to get a hand on it, but it slices and breaks the skin, causing anything from a minor to a severe injury with oodles of blood.

The most prudent course of action is waiting until the knife is safe and stabilized on the ground, and then picking it up. Don’t try to beat the odds, don’t take the risk, and don’t be clever by thinking you can grab it while it’s still dropping or bouncing. Wait until it is at its safest (or financially lowest value), then grab it. But humans, damned as we are, cannot resist the urge to reach for the shiny knife, even if it possesses the potential to hurt us in its current and not fully understood state.

English footballers are widely agreed upon to be overpriced due to a variety of factors not limited to television money, an outsized sense of Premier League superiority, and the necessity of signing domestic players to meet roster regulations. For any European signing in MLS, it is often viewed as a move to find money or redemption. For an English player especially, those stipulations lend themselves to a player whose value is either in free fall or has completely bottomed out. Why would any player come to America, turning down opportunities to eventually reach the Premier League, continue to earn handsomely in the money-flush Championship, or catch on with a lower league team in the hopes of immediately bouncing back up the ladder? Acquiring someone no longer thriving in England represents a risk that is exponentially intensified when paired with an oftentimes overpriced transfer fee.

The New York Red Bulls are currently attempting to grab the falling knife by signing Dru Yearwood from Brentford. Despite appearing to be on the way up the ladder, his 2019-2020 was a sudden decline, one of unknown length that could end the second he steps on the field in MLS or continue for the indefinite future.

This is not to say it is the first time the Red Bulls have recruited from the Football League. Indeed much of the club’s last decade is defined by the acquisition of English players whose careers were on a slide. Luke Rodgers, Lloyd Sam, and Bradley Wright-Phillips were plucked from relative obscurity down the pyramid and performed on the field, becoming stars and fan favorites. They were acquired for free. There was no attempt at seizing on a great value with a well-timed purchase. There was no great risk outside of an international spot. The knife had hit the ground and lay still.

But this year there have even been big money transfer rumors centered on England, most notably a reported $5 million bid from Red Bulls for Peterborough striker Ivan Toney, the highest scorer in League One this past year. It is curious that Red Bull’s soccer network, an organization built on maximizing value and sticking to a core ethos, sees exploitable market inefficiency in England. With Yearwood, not only is it an attempt to seize upon a valuable asset whose prospects are currently falling, but New York reportedly paid three times the transfer fee that Brentford sent to Southend a year ago. Without considering the player’s talent or other intangibles, it’s a curious and risky signing. If the club misses this falling knife, there is going to be some spilled blood in the form of a wasted Designated Player spot and another lost year without a cup.

The presence of new Red Bulls sporting chief Kevin Thelwell, a veteran of the British lower league scene from his work with the Wales FA and Wolverhampton Wanderers, lends slightly less ambiguity than the typical desperate grab by an MLS team at any player with experience in England. Indeed, while Thelwell’s praise of Yearwood’s mentality and interviews was mocked by some as faint praise for an underwhelming signing, it reflects an emphasis on mental maturity (more specifically a “no dickheads” policy in Thelwell’s own words) that will be crucial in the success of a player taking an early career detour to another continent.

Perhaps a man instrumental in Wolverhampton’s rise to the Premier League knows quite a bit about the game and how to identify players. The Red Bulls may have found a high value player and accurately assessed the best time to grab the falling knife without waiting until it landed on the ground. Yearwood has a high pedigree, recognized as a talent by two unique yet well-respected scouting departments. It’s still a risk and one that could set the tone for and define the recently-established regime.