HOUSTON – Toronto FC may have cornered the UK player market of late since the arrival of new manager Ryan Nelsen from the English Premier League. But it’s the Houston Dynamo who are cashing in more than any other MLS team from British imports.
In the last two and a half years, the Dynamo have hit on several overseas transactions and their last two moves – for Englishmen Giles Barnes and Andrew Driver – have already resulted in MLS contributors.
“As a young British guy growing up, the buzz was about the Premier League and the Championship but I think it’s kind of changing a little bit,” Driver told MLSsoccer.com. “The impression everyone has now is that [MLS] is a good league. It’s certainly not a step down for anyone anymore. Actually it’s a step up. The standard has improved so much.
Barnes and Driver are younger British players who were brought to MLS while still in their prime. And although fancy online scouting systems are all the rage, nothing beats the naked eye for Dominic Kinnear.
“I was lucky because Dom’s a Celtic fan,” Driver said. “He’s been over and seen a couple of games and seen me play. These teams want to find these players, it’s all about watching them.”
Also at play for Kinnear is the age-old adage that applies in life and business: it’s not about what you know, but who you know. For Kinnear, that means using the networks available due to his Scottish roots, some more personal than others.
“With Andrew Driver I have a cousin who knows the game pretty well and I asked him about Andrew and he said, ‘Take a real good look at this guy. He’s a real good player that maybe just needs a change of scenery,’” Kinnear recalled. “And it’s worked out well for him.”
While Driver came from some close-knit influences, Barnes popped on Houston’s radar by recommendation. He was facing another season outside the Premier League and the one-time youth starlet was looking to make a change.
“The realization of playing in the Championship kicked in and it wasn’t something I wanted to continue,” Barnes said. “I thought about going abroad as well, but I thought this was the place for me to come and so far I think I was right.”
With Barnes interested in testing the overseas market last summer, the Dynamo were tipped to his availability by an agent/scout. The Dynamo immediately threw their hat in the ring and after a brief trial — which is a rarity for foreign prospects -- Barnes was in a Dynamo uniform in July.
“When it comes to Britain, obviously we’ve made some relationships over the years,” Kinnear said. “You do rely on word of mouth, too. I know quite a few people over in Great Britain who can give a rundown of players and we’ve used those people before and maybe we’ll use them again.
“So far we’ve had a little bit of luck with these two guys [Barnes and Driver].”
Driver and Barnes have been breakout players for Houston this year, showing off the skills and technique that attracted the Dynamo’s attention. Between them they’ve scored seven goals and been a major part of a Dynamo team that’s gotten off one of its best starts in franchise history at 6-4-2.
And similar to how MLS Designated Players such as David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane put MLS on the map in the UK and opened players’ eyes to the US top flight, Barnes and Driver could be trendsetters in their own way.
“To come over here is quite hard. I think you’ve got to realize you’ve got to be of a certain standard to come over here and you’ve got to play with some hunger,” Barnes said. “My phone goes off on a regular basis with people wanting to come over asking can I help them or can I speak to someone. I tell them ‘I can try to help you, but you’ve got to be wanted to come over.’ That’s something that a lot of people didn’t realize.”
Added Driver: “The standard [in MLS] has improved so much. You look at America and the country it is, there’s no way it can’t get big.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.