In the past year alone, the American league has lost seven U.S. national team players to teams in England, Germany, Portugal and the Netherlands. The MLS All-Star Game today in Washington will give rising stars such as San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Landon Donovan a chance to showcase their skills for suitors abroad.
The latest headed overseas: DaMarcus Beasley (from the Chicago Fire to 17-time Dutch league champion PSV Eindhoven) and Bobby Convey (from D.C. United to Reading in England's Division One). They switched teams last week, and each reportedly was sold to his new employer for at least $1.5 million.
It's a trend MLS calls standard operating procedure throughout the world of soccer and says proves the 9-year-old league is evolving. Others, though, see it as a disturbing development, stripping MLS of its best-known players and thinning the talent pool with expansion looming. Two teams will be added next year, and two more in 2006.
''The lure is money,'' former New York Cosmos goalkeeper Shep Messing said. ''This is the business side of soccer.''
Now a TV analyst on MetroStars' games and an agent representing mostly non-American players, Messing said MLS simply doesn't pay what European teams offer.
''I have a lot of clients in Europe who would love to play in MLS,'' Messing said. ''But after I explain what MLS pays, they say 'OK, I'll visit there on vacation.'
MLS players earn from $24,000 to Freddy Adu's $500,000.
Beasley, 22, and Convey, 21, have become regulars on the U.S. national team as well as MLS All-Stars. Both were to make about $150,000 this season in MLS, but they'll make at least triple that with their new teams.
MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis acknowledges money is a big reason players move to Europe, although certainly there also is the allure of playing on the sport's more established stages.
''Financial stability for the future is a big concern, but I always wanted to go to England,'' said Convey, who went to Britain in 1998 with the under-17 national team. ''I watched the Premiership games, all the divisions, really - you see the stadiums, the people. The fans are crazy about sport. It's so big in Europe.''
While MLS occasionally pays higher salaries in exceptional circumstances, such as for the 15-year-old Adu, the league has chosen to focus on younger, cheaper talent. And Gazidis doesn't think the league makes its marketing efforts tougher by replacing recognized players with up-and-coming ones.
''We're developing new stars all the time,'' Gazidis said. ''I'm not sure it makes it more difficult. If there is no player movement, there's no dynamism, no evolution.'' Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, says MLS must be careful not to be perceived as merely a developmental tool.
''If every marquee name leaves having just used MLS as a minor league, it does position MLS in a different light - it will be viewed as a minor league,'' Swangard said. ''And it can't be seen as a minor league and be successful in the U.S.''
When Paul Caligiuri signed with Germany's SV Meppen, and Hugo Perez joined France's Red Star in the late 1980s, they were the lone European club pros on the U.S. national team. At the time, U.S. pro leagues consisted of two indoor leagues and an outdoor league that could at best be considered semipro.
MLS has changed perceptions about American players, some say too successfully.
But not every player has chosen Europe over MLS. MetroStars captain and U.S. national team defender Eddie Pope rejected offers from Germany and elsewhere. Career-leading U.S. scorer Eric Wynalda spurned an offer from Germany's Kaiserslautern before the 1998 season, when it won the Bundesliga title.
And MLS drew some U.S. national team members and former MLSers back to the United States, such as forward Jovan Kirovski, defender Cory Gibbs and two-time World Cup midfielder Frankie Hejduk.
Donovan would be the biggest departure yet.
At 22, he already has 51 national team appearances, helping the United States reach the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. He's won two MLS championships, and today's All-Star Game will be his fourth.
German club Leverkusen loaned Donovan to MLS 3 1/2 years ago and wants him back after the U.S. season. His agent, Richard Motzkin, has had talks with Leverkusen.
As the agent for several top MLS players, Motzkin sees nothing wrong with the recent spate of departures.
''It's very common in soccer,'' he said. ''If MLS didn't do it, there'd be something wrong.''