MLS: Professional Soccer’s Retirement Home

October 7, 2015

Photo Credits: Flickr user Kunal Shah

Today, Major League Soccer is well infused with better known players who played for most of their soccer careers in Europe before deciding to make the move to the USA. Many of these players, such as David Villa, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, are definitely in the last stages of their careers as professional players. Unlike Gianluigi Buffon, who will probably continue to play until he dies (most likely on the pitch), most of these players have a few years left in their professional careers, tops.

Now, these stars have certainly helped the MLS gain popularity and global interest, but we must ask ourselves if this is the way we want professional soccer to grow in the USA. Do we really want the MLS to become the retirement home of professional soccer, where stars come to shine until their lights fade out?

However, there is no question that such stars have done very positive things for the MLS. For example, I argue that David Beckham pulled Major League Soccer out of its start-up slump.

A short history:

Major League Soccer was formed as a professional soccer league in 1995 on the orders of FIFA, who demanded that the USA have division one soccer in order to be able to host the World Cup in 1994. Although the tournament was a hit, the first few years of the MLS were rocky. There was low attendance at the games, and the number of television viewers was just similarly low. After all, why would soccer fans watch the MLS when it’s just as easy to watch the Premier League? Eventually the league gained some attention by luring some well known American players from abroad to come and play in the MLS, such as Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda. In 2002, even more people began to watch the MLS as a result of the US national team’s stunning quarterfinals run that year.

But neither these better known American players nor the USMNT’s fantastic World Cup result could coax Americans into supporting their professional league. I argue that nothing could do this until David Beckham joined the LA Galaxy in 2007 and set the ball rolling (literally) for foreign stars to come to the MLS.

Beckham’s move to the MLS impacted much more than just the spectator count (the LA Galaxy sold 7,000 more season tickets in 2007, after Beckham signed, than in 2006). It also increased the number of television viewers and created a worldwide interest in Major League Soccer. ESPN began televising more MLS games, and LA Galaxy jerseys with Beckham’s name were shipped not only around the USA, but also abroad. Having David Beckham come to the United States was arguably the best thing that could have happened to the MLS when it did, and it ultimately set the stage for other famous European players to do the same.

Today, there are many stars who have previously competed for top clubs in Europe who have come to play in the MLS. Along with Villa, Gerrard, Pirlo, and Lampard are Kaká, who came from AC Milan to play for Orlando City, Giovani dos Santos, who came from Villarreal for the LA Galaxy, and Didier Drogba, who left Chelsea for the Montreal Impact. Each of these players took the chance to support the up and coming American soccer league. Kaká even stated that he believes that Major League Soccer is on the upswing, and soon will belong to one of the world’s best professional leagues. Without a doubt, these players have helped the League enormously, and following Beckham’s move have blazed the trail from Europe to the USA. But with the exception of dos Santos, they are all almost finished with their professional careers.

This phenomenon has many critics, such as ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, who voices his opinion that it’s more important to get younger players playing for the MLS than old famous geezers. This is very hard to do, but personally, I tend to agree with Twellman. The older players do definitely support the league with their foreign fans, mad skills (cough, Pirlo), and hype, but they aren’t doing much for the development of the league. It will be the younger players that will help the MLS grow, and if we could get some of these up-and-coming young stars to develop here in the MLS, it would be fantastic for the establishment of a solid basis in the league. Where Major League Soccer now is, however, it isn’t realistic for youngsters to choose the MLS to lead them to international acclaim. There just isn’t enough quality or opportunities here for young players.  

The question that we have to ask ourselves is: how can we make it possible for young players to establish their careers in the USA in such a way that will benefit both the MLS and the player in order to be able to compete with European leagues for developing these players?

Unless we can make this happen, we will continue to be the retiring home of professional soccer.


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Sebastian Giovinco left Juventus for MLS, he’s only 28. Still gets call ups for the Italy national team. Hopefully more young stars follow his example and come to MLS

Bart Edes

While accurately highlighting that the MLS continues to recruit 30+ year-old global stars in the twilight of their career, it overlooks major developments in the fast-developing league. Most foreign imports to the MLS are not soccer senior citizens: the average age of foreign players joining the league in the last transfer window was 27. Fellow comment-maker Bill is right to cite the case of Giovinco, which marks a new trend: MLS chasing big names in the prime of their careers (26 year-old Giovani dos Santos of the LA Galaxy and the Mexican National Team is another example). MLS has increased its salaries and is aggressively pursuing top American talent abroad with attractive paychecks (the league is replete with such examples, including Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Sacha Kljestan, Clint Dempsey, Sebastian Lleget and many more). It is also hiking pay for MLS Americans whom it wants to keep in the league (see US National Team members Graham Zusi and Omar Gonzales, among others). It is factually incorrect to claim that quality and opportunities are lacking in MLS. As the league quickly improves, success breeds success, and more very good players (not just aging ones) want to be a part of it. Also noteworthy: MLS clubs have developed youth academies which are generating MLS players of the future (both American and non-American). Dallas FC recently started 5 young players from its academy in a league match, and DC United Goalkeeper Bill Hamid was named best at his position in the MLS last year. He is part of the rich pool of goalkeepers ready to succeed Tim Howard, Brad Guzon and Nick Rimando, now all in their 30s.


Your league is a joke, players get paid to play in your league for a share of the profits. No relegation, no fight for the title just a silly cup! Mexico is billions of years ahead you’s concerning football, your not even a force in the CONCACAF CL.

I always wonder why Mexico play in the CONCACAF, they’re too good for it just like Australia were for the OFC!

Mexico should join CONMEBOL

Bart Edes

Frankie, you are mixing up leagues and national teams. As for leagues, there’s no question the Mexican league is better than MLS. But by calling the MLS “a joke”, it seems that you haven’t been paying attention to the massive amount of investment going into league, and its rising quality. I don’t think Mexican players like Hugo Sánchez, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Pável Pardo, Rafael Márquez, Erick “Cubo” Torres, or Giovani dos Santos are jokes because they played (or now play) in the MLS. As for the Mexican national team being too good for CONCACAF, you have a short-term memory, failing to recall that the USA dominated Mexico for about a decade from 2002 (Dos a Cero, anyone?), and that Mexico barely qualified for the last World Cup (thanks to a late U.S. goal that knocked out Panama, and opened the door for Mexico to sneak in through a playoff). Are the El Tri the best team in the federation right now? Yes, probably. But there is no guarantee it will stay on top for very long. As for the CONCACAF Champions League, there are 8 teams remaining in the current competition, half from MLS and half from Liga MX. Past Mexican success in the CL does not assure similar future success. -B


Bart Edes – thank you for writing the exact reply I had in my head.

The gist of this article was more or less correct – in 2012. Not anymore


I understand the concern but I don’t think it’s relevant at this point in the leagues history. For example NYCFC’s dps make up about half of the best examples of old superstars playing in mls and NYCFC’s situation is different than the rest of the league. They are signing these players to make a splash and put their brand on the map. As for Orlando signing kaka is also of a similar motive but he is such an amazing person and model professional it’s also worth his paycheck for him to lead the club through their mls infancy. Besides the expansion clubs which should be viewed differently the only old superstars signed after the age of 34 include drogba and Gerrard, legends that most teams in the best leagues of Europe would still gladly sign in a heartbeat. As far as development goes the mandatory academy standards for each mls team set by the league years ago are really only now starting to blossom into fruition, and there’s room to grow for every team. If anything homegrown prospects on the senior team can learn from their idols. In the next few years for the first time we will see mls players who have come up in an academy since the age of 15 or so and that will change the standard of play dramatically. Also in the last 4 years the caliber and age of highly paid players brought into the league has shifted to better and younger players. This article is not up with the times and these concerns would have been valid a few years ago, not today.