Stop me if you've heard this one before. A long-time English league midfielder and captain, well past his prime, is looking at coming to Major League Soccer. With his immaculately-coiffed hair and a burgeoning career as a media star, there are concerns the player might be more distracting off the field than he'll contribute on it. But the Major League Soccer club seems to be ferociously interested in his services anyway.
It's true. If you haven't heard the news by now, Derby County captain and former Welsh international Robbie Savage is being strongly linked with a move to the Vancouver Whitecaps. This is no "Robbie Keane to the United States?" rumour: the Mirror article quotes Savage directly and unequivocally, and Savage himself has been spreading the news via Twitter. The only question is whether Derby is willing to release Savage before the end of his contract.
After all our hopes of the Whitecaps spending their first designated player spot on an attacking dynamo, going out and grabbing solid players near the prime of their careers who can fill weaknesses in this lineup, and generally chasing glory rather than chasing the past, this is a disappointingly typical MLS move. A 36-year-old defensive midfielder, the one-time holder of the record for most yellow cards in Premier League history. Savage currently helms a foundering ship in Derby, running thirteenth in the Npower Championship despite early, optimistic hopes of a run for promotion. Derby County fans around the Internet are actively excited about their captain potentially crossing the pond.
None of this is to say that Robbie Savage would be a bad player for Major League Soccer. But I can't imagine he'd come over for Terry Dunfield money, and should he really be Vancouver's first choice as a designated player?
It must be said that, at first glance, Savage's style looks well-suited for MLS. Savage is an infamously hard-nosed player; referred to by the Daily Mail as "statistically the dirtiest player in Premier League history", and MLS is a good home for the dirty. Men such as Kevin Harmse and Adrian Serioux have made good, long careers out of being rough customers who'll do whatever it takes to get an advantage. In MLS, the refereeing is often capricious, the surfaces hard, and the opponents ready for rough play. Savage could get a lot of mileage out of simply making life hell for any attacking players coming his way. Moreover, his simple, unattractive, but effecting passing style is tailor-made for MLS: in this league the looping crosses and magnificent through balls of European soccer are often less effective than simply advancing the ball and maintaining possession.
I don't want to say that Savage would be a failure in MLS. Quite the contrary, his style of play seems attractive, like a rich man's Terry Dunfield. Except we already have a Terry Dunfield, and nobody reading this site will need an introduction to him. Doubtless Savage could provide an improvement over Dunfield (for a season or two, anyway, before the years and the hard miles catch up to the 36-year-old and slow him down beyond usefulness). But is it an improvement worth spending a considerable amount of money and almost certainly a designated player spot on? To improve a part of the team that is already fairly solid to bring in a player of considerable, but far from game-changing, talent?
Then there are Savage's expanding non-playing interests. Derby fans have criticized Savage for his unasbashed pursuit of a media career while still captaining his club. Savage writes a regular column online for Mirror Football, has made several commentating appearances for ESPN and BBC Radio 5 Live, and has never made any secret of his desire to remain in the spotlight after his playing career is done. It's only recently that Savage decided to play beyond the 2010-11 season at all, referring to his expiring deal with Derby in a 2009 interview as "almost certainly [. . .] my last contract in football". Savage obviously has other priorities off the field, and while that doesn't condemn him out of hand, it does cast a problematic light on his desire to come to Canada for one last payday. If Savage winds up playing out the string in Vancouver for designated player money while trying to get his face on as many television screens as possible, it could make the Beckham Experiment look like mere vinegar and baking soda.
There's a lot of risk around the Whitecaps signing Robbie Savage, and the reward (a hard-tackling holding midfielder long past his prime) isn't all that great. If I were Tom Soehn, I'd think twice. Savage would probably be a good player for a couple of seasons in MLS if he stayed dedicated. But we can do better.