Rumor Mill: McLain Departs Orange County, possibly heading to New England

Some might use it as evidence to say the club has officially made it.

Rumors broke on Wednesday about the possibility of Orange County SC number one Patrick McLain moving to MLS franchise New England Revolution. The Foxborough-based side has yet to find a consistent starter for 2019, with all three of their goalkeepers sharing the spotlight. Bruce Arena was announced as their new manager and sporting director back in May, but it is only now during the secondary transfer window that the US soccer mainstay has had the opportunity to retool and rebuild his squad for the years to come.

McLain, 30, joined Orange County SC on March 29 and made his 2019 debut for the side a day later against El Paso Locomotive FC. It wasn’t the first spell in OC for the goalkeeper: McLain featured 15 times for the side in 2014 before moving to northern rivals Sacramento Republic FC in 2015, and then to top flight club Chicago Fire. In 12 appearances for the Southern Californian side in 2019, McLain kept three clean sheets and made 37 saves in 1,080 minutes.

The rumors followed McLain’s exclusion from the traveling squad for the Austin Bold match on July 14, for undisclosed reasons. If an offer had been made from the Revolution, or any other side, it is understandable that McLain would not feature again in a match until the completion or breakdown of the transfer negotiations. The keeper was present at training for OCSC on Tuesday, interacting with fans at an open training session.

Neither club made any public effort to confirm or deny the interest in McLain, and it is unknown if the goalkeeper trained on Wednesday. Interestingly, the wording of Lesser’s tweet suggests that McLain had left the club on Wednesday independent of having a completed transfer or contractual agreement with the Revolution. In the void of both teams’ silence, the rumor gained more traction in both Orange County and New England, and a few possibilities grew to substantiate the rumor’s plausibility:

  1. The New England Revolution refused to meet Orange County SC’s valuation or any buy-out clause for the first-choice keeper and the transfer offer fell through. Fearing his best chance to return to MLS was slipping away, McLain canceled his contract with OCSC, becoming a free agent to again court the MLS side.

  2. Orange County SC received an inquiry for McLain, but outright refused to sell the goalkeeper during a crucial point in their season. McLain found out that an inquiry and/or offer had been made for his services. Again, fearing his best shot at returning to MLS was quickly disappearing, the player cancelled his contract to become a free agent in hopes of forcing a deal with interested clubs.

  3. McLain is keen to force a move back to MLS during the secondary transfer window, but Orange County SC was unwilling to shop their key player around. Likely aware of concrete interest from a top flight club, the player canceled his contract to be a more attractive option to a suitor by allowing the interested club to forgo the arrangement of a transfer fee with Orange County.

Generally, preventing a player from joining a higher division club risks alienating other players in the locker room who may soon be in similar situations or wish to move to other clubs. The ensuing domino effect could create a negative stigma and reputation that would ultimately affect free agents’ decisions when receiving offers from a club.

Officially, neither the second nor the third circumstances align with Orange County SC policies surrounding player development. Since James Keston’s takeover in 2017, the club has repeatedly stressed that the club is focused on “opening doors” for its players, “developing… so that [coaches] can get [players] to the next level.” It is a tenet of the club’s vision, not just limited to younger players. To quote the owner himself:

We want what is in the best interest of the player. We’re not looking to lock players down to a five-year contract and keep them around forever.
— James Keston, September 2018

Financially, the second and third options do not make any sense for a lower division side that operates with a smaller budget. If a player is going to move on from the club, it is always best to receive some financial return for the initial investment, even if it may impact the short term success of a side. Fortunately, with no risk of relegation and no chance of promotion, the biggest potential loss is a decrease in ticket sales if a club misses out on the playoffs.

While McLain is undoubtedly the first choice goalkeeper for OCSC, he has sporadically missed matches since his first appearance in El Paso. In these absences, the club has repeatedly shown their faith in teenaged back-up Aaron Cervantes to start between the posts. This season is far from going to plan for OC, so the opportunity to receive a sizeable influx of cash in exchange for a quality player who almost assuredly commands a big wage is an opportunity too good to turn down. It offers more freedom looking forward to 2020.

Aaron Cervantes, OC’s back up goalkeeper, extends to keep a shot out against New Mexico United on March 23, 2019.  Photo courtesy of Liza Rosales/Orange County SC .

Aaron Cervantes, OC’s back up goalkeeper, extends to keep a shot out against New Mexico United on March 23, 2019. Photo courtesy of Liza Rosales/Orange County SC.

While still only a rumor, this leaves the first option, the failed buyout and subsequent cancelled contract, as the most plausible explanation for McLain’s departure. McLain and his agent are likely aware of the situation surrounding New England, its goalkeepers, and its finances. As previously mentioned, Arena currently serves as the club’s sporting director in addition to his head coaching duties, meaning that he will have as close to full autonomy to build his squad as any manager or sporting director in MLS.

Also previously mentioned: the Revolution have rotated their goalkeepers heavily this year. All three of the goalkeepers on their roster have featured at least seven times. The Revs’ highest earning goalkeeper is 34 year old Brad Knighton, who will make just over $115,000 in 2019. The other two keepers are 26 year old Cody Cropper and 25 year old Matt Turner, both of whom will earn a fraction over $75,000 this year. All three goalkeepers’ contracts expire in December, with Cropper looking the most likely to earn an extension. As Arena looks to build a competitive side for the coming years, taking in 30 year old Patrick McLain at or slightly above the league minimum of $70,250 is good business that provides a quality stopgap at a low cost to help bridge between Knighton and Cropper.

Revs owner Robert Kraft has been financially apathetic for a long time toward his MLS club, much preferring the glamour of the NFL and the success of fellow New England team and Kraft franchise, the New England Patriots. With an owner historically unwilling to invest in his side, the Revs’ transfer budget is likely to be quite small, especially after a multi-million dollar signing in Gustavo Bou. Restrictions may also be in place that limit where the aforementioned budget may be utilized. Factor in the $425,000 worth of dead salary cap space with just five remaining spots for the rest of 2019 and the likelihood of paying a transfer fee of a few hundred thousand for a goalkeeper becomes almost nonexistent.

Again, McLain and his agent will be aware of the entire situation involving New England. A player of his caliber might be unproven for a starting gig in MLS, but he is definitely near the ceiling of USL goalkeeping. His camp will be aware of any interest in his services, and that electing free agency and saving a potential new club a transfer fee can potentially allow player and agent to both negotiate pay, contract length, and bonus increases during contract negotiations. It is a similar tactic to that which was employed by Alexis Sanchez in his transfer from Arsenal to Manchester United in 2018, opting to agree to a straight player swap only if the originally proposed transfer fee was instead used as his salary over the life of his contract.

Per league policies, there is nothing that prevents McLain or his agent from modifying or cancelling his contract in order to improve his chances of joining another side. It is eerily similar to Antoine Griezmann’s actions in his last season with Atlético Madrid: first informing the club of his decision to leave the club and then modifying the release clause his contract to entice Barcelona, his main suitor, to arrange his transfer to the Catalan club.

Circumstance always dominates how a player is regarded following a career move. As Orange County faces three key fixtures over the next 10 days, the events surrounding his move will certainly be under even more scrutiny, as McLain is a key player who has proven that he can win the side points by himself. The desire for the stability, pay, and stature of top flight play is innate and understandable to all supporters; but if McLain’s departure from Orange County circumvents a transfer for the club, it is likely to leave supporters and technical staff alike with a sour opinion of their former favorite, as many will believe the goalkeeper should have honored his contract.