Kris Boyd has become the latest Scottish pro to try his luck in MLS. Bryan Kay assesses his chances, and looks at some of those who paved the way.
The sneering pundits who never quite warmed to his predatory virtues would perhaps put it something like this: Kris Boyd has never seemed quite capable of adapting to life away from the cool but pliable comforts of Scottish football.
Eighteen-times capped by his country, the Scottish international striker stacked up a formidable goals tally during stints at Scottish Premier League clubs Kilmarnock and Glasgow Rangers.
But Boyd seemed unable to shake off the uncomfortable scarlet letter wrapped around his neck by critics who never tired of branding him “lazy”. For many, he bore all the hallmarks of an enigma: a seemingly ferocious instinct for finding the back of the net that amassed a goals tally of 195 goals from 360 appearances in Scottish football was coupled with recurrent claims of boorish link-up play and lacklustre off-the-ball movement.
After largely unsuccessful spells in England with Championship side Middlesbrough – which included a spell on loan to league rivals Nottingham Forest – and in Turkey with Super Lig outfit Eskisehirspor, the cat calls from those unconvinced by the 28-year-old’s ostensibly admirable output in Scotland appeared to gain some traction.
Now Boyd is braced to open a fresh chapter.
In the throes of the oft-mentioned prime years of a footballer’s career, his latest challenge is another foreign mission – in the United States. This time round, he has been teed up as the star man at Major League Soccer side Portland Timbers, their marquee signing ahead of the 2012 season.
But for someone who appeared desperate to prove the doubters wrong, the move across the Atlantic Ocean has raised a few eyebrows. Despite its rising stock, the MLS is still viewed less as a platform steeped in the kind of qualities that will help shoot down the naysayers, and more a cosy outpost of footballing leisure where Europe’s falling stars go to boost their retirement funds.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger hinted as much when referring to the way Thierry Henry performed during his recent loan spell back at the London club from New York Red Bulls.
"We didn't expect him to be so important for us when he signed," the Frenchman told reporters. “His talent on the pitch is still much sharper than I expected after being out in the States. I expected him to have more health problems because at the end of the day he left top, top European level football because he was a bit concerned about his knee problems, but he's in good shape."
The more cynical might argue that quite apart from claims of a shortfall in Boyd’s all-round game as a striker, standout performances in the SPL seldom prove a platform for greatness. Under that analysis, Boyd was never going to scale the heights and take his place among the world’s great centre forwards anyway – a fact perhaps evidenced when he first left Scotland. For it was not a step-up to the English Premier League that came as he left Glasgow, but a decidedly sideways step into England’s second tier, the Championship.
Not surprisingly, it was Boyd’s goalscoring instincts that Portland head coach John Spencer, a fellow Scot and former Rangers player himself, focused on when he spoke about his new signing. "He was born to score,” he said. “If we create chances, he's going to be the guy that's going to get on the end of them. He's just a natural born finisher.”
Such plaudits furnished, there may be ominous signs from the get-go for a man rumoured to have become Portland’s highest-paid player. "We want to play with a target forward and we want to play off the target forward," Gavin Wilkinson, Portland general manager, told local media after pulling out all the tops to secure Boyd’s signature. "We want a guy who can win the ball when it's in the air and allow our guys to get forward.” Yet the chief criticism Boyd attracted in Scotland was that he lacked the ability to play that particular type of forward role. His work-rate was not nearly high enough, was the cry of the critics, and this was exacerbated by a tendency to drift out of games in which scoring opportunities were at a premium.
Neither is he treading on solid ground for Scottish talent. MLS history isn’t exactly littered with Scottish success stories – particularly in the striking department. Perhaps the most successful so far have been Spencer himself and former Rangers and Glasgow Celtic striker Maurice Johnston. After leaving SPL side Motherwell in 2000, one-time Chelsea and Everton striker Spencer headed for Colorado Rapids, where in four seasons he notched 37 goals in 88 games for the Denver-based side. Johnston, a star in England’s top flight with Watford in the 1980s, spent six seasons from 1996 to 2001 with Kansas City Wizards, clocking up 149 appearances and 31 goals.
But for every Spencer and Johnston, there is a Kenny Deuchar and a Tom McManus. Neither set the heather alight during their brief stints in the United States. Deuchar, formerly of East Fife and Gretna, left Scotland for the United States in 2008, where moonlighted as a doctor while playing centre forward for the MLS side Real Salt Lake. A disappointing one-season stint saw a miserly return of just three goals in 29 appearances – 18 of them starts. McManus faired little better. The former Hibernian, Dundee and Dunfermline striker – also in 2008 – turned out for Colorado Rapids, finding the net only five times in 22 matches.
While Boyd might not bear the kind of credentials possessed by Spencer and Johnston who both thrived in bigger and better leagues than both the SPL and MLS, neither is he one of the lesser Scottish lights likely to burn out almost as quickly as he is set on MLS defences. But what his move does likely signal is the final nail in the coffin of any notion anyone had of him proving himself on a bigger platform than Scotland -- and perhaps with it the vindication of some of his more vocal critics.
One things does remain unresolved, however – something that stalks so many Scottish football exports. The idea proffered by some of his more reasoned naysayers says Boyd had always possessed much more “in his locker” than he appeared to produce on the football field, but that he neither had the willpower nor the courage to fully test the merits of his insufficiently explored attributes.
Ironically, in Portland he will find a climate not too unlike that of Glasgow, where he found his richest vein of form, and a dressing room where he is once again – on paper at least – the star man. A big fish in a small pond once more, as one notoriously ardent Boyd critic might put it. Let’s now see whether he can find the play just as pliable.