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.