Dom Dwyer began his U.S. national team career mere months after gaining citizenship, and he did so with goals. Those goals—one against Ghana in a friendly on his debut and another against Panama in the opening game of the 2017 Gold Cup—were a drop in the bucket compared to the 57 he scored with Sporting Kansas City, but they proved significant beyond the score lines. In fact, they formed the bedrock of one of the biggest MLS trades of all time.
After fielding multiple trade offers from teams all over MLS in the wake of his international performance, Sporting KC announced on Tuesday that it had traded Dwyer to Orlando City SC for what, by MLS standards, is a massive sum: $1.6 million in allocation money, $900,000 of which is guaranteed, and $700,000 of which is subject to what SKC manager and technical director Peter Vermes said are easily-achievable incentives.
"This deal was driven by the competitive nature of the other teams in the league," Vermes said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. "There were a few [teams] that came in heavy and hard, and even in the last couple of days there were a couple teams that were banging on our door wanting to get in."
And it all comes back to Dwyer's international goals. His hot start with the United States resulted in a July 10 Goal.com report stating that Dwyer could be in line for a big-money contract extension given his rising stock and imminent expiration of his contract at the end of the 2018 season. The report said that Dwyer had already turned down Sporting's initial offer, though, quoted to be $1.2 million per year. Vermes denied that figure was accurate to reporters on Tuesday, but admitted that the club had made Dwyer an extension offer in March, which was rejected and then countered with an offer from the players' side, which Sporting rejected. Once that information became public, Vermes said, the calls started coming in.
Eventually, Orlando made an offer that more than doubles the previous high of allocation money transferred between teams within the league.
“Our group has worked hard to find potential additions to the club and we are thrilled to finalize this deal and add an important piece to the roster in Dom,” Orlando City CEO Alex Leitão said in a statement. “Dom is a fantastic player who recently gave us a glimpse of what he is capable of with the U.S. men’s national team and will keep doing so with the club and at the MLS All-Star game next week.”
Even given the money involved, it's easy to look at this as a lopsided deal in favor of Orlando. In Dwyer, the Lions get a proven MLS goalscorer–the single hardest quantity to find and retain in the league. Not only that, but they also get a player who has a degree of familiarity and perhaps even outright affection with the club and its home city.
Before making his mark with SKC, Dwyer spent part of the 2013 season on loan at the then-USL Orlando City, scoring 15 goals in 13 appearances to lead the Lions to the league championship, including four goals in the title game. In addition to all of that, Dwyer's player profile, undersized but with a big engine and a nose for goal, would seem to mesh well on paper with Orlando's current go-to goalscorer Cyle Larin. If those two get on the same page together, and if the surrounding eight players can work to get them the ball in the right spots, the Lions could have a front line envied throughout the league.
By the same surface-level analysis, the negative consequences for Sporting seem just as extreme. Dwyer may not be having his best season in Kansas City in 2017, with just five goals and one assist through 15 games, but he was still an every-game threat for which teams had to account, and the past three seasons proved that it was more likely than not that he would get back to scoring goals with regularity.
For a SKC team that has often struggled with how to break teams down that bunker against their high-energy, frenetic style of play, having at least one player who can make that kind of difference is paramount. Now, barring a follow-up move, Sporting KC has zero of them, in a season in which it has a realistic chance of winning the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup and sits seven points off the pace in the race for the Supporters' Shield.
"How do we replace Dom? I don't know if you do. We have to go find another player that has strengths that you can make work," Vermes said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. "[The allocation money] is an incredible resource to help us manage the salary cap over the next number of years."
And therein lies the reason why Sporting would trade the man who has led the team in scoring each of the last three seasons, and why this trade could easily turn out to be a win for the team, despite outward appearances. That sum of $1.6 million is an awful lot of cash in MLS. Almost a third of it, $500,000, is Targeted Allocation Money, meaning that Sporting now has increased flexibility to buy down the cap hits of any of its current Designated Players, or use it to buy down the cap it of a new addition.
The $400,000 of it that is General Allocation Money gives the team a reserve of cash that it can spread throughout its roster or, if necessary, trade for other talent in the league or a prime spot in the allocation ranking order. In its most generous interpretation, Sporting sold high on Dwyer, and in return got enough money that can be used in enough ways to keep the team competitive for a long time to come, with the right investment. Keep in mind that Benny Feilhaber, Roger Espinoza, Matt Besler, and Graham Zusi, players that make up the core of Sporting KC's first-choice side, are all on the wrong side of 30.
"Our intention has never been to have a team that’s really good one year and really poor the next year. We want to remain competitive every year," Vermes said. "I have to look at the short and long term aspects of the organization. When you’re in a salary cap situation, sometimes you can’t keep everybody."
There's an off-field impact to the deal as well. Dwyer may not have been universally revered among SKC fans as you might expect for a man of his goal-scoring record, but at the very least he was extremely well-liked. His wife, U.S. women's national team star Sydney Leroux, plays for FC Kansas City of the NWSL, and the two had a son (and budding Instagram star) in the city last year. Dwyer, and his family, had made a home in Kansas City.
Now, that home, at least for Dwyer, will be somewhere else.