In the beginning, MLS was a little league that merited little notice internationally. On occasion an all star went overseas and their previous career was noted by pundits, but MLS itself was paid little heed by the Sky Sports of the world. For better or for worse, this changed with the Beckham Experiment when the eyes of world soccer were turned to our league to see just how competitive it could be. And while MLS is still tipped occasionally as a minor league mainly by a few ignorant journalists, it has been successful in attracting enough foreign talent that papers like The Guardian have at least online reporters covering the MLS beat. I attribute this to MLS’s ability to attract foreign veterans to come over and play, mainly because of the flexibility the designated player rule allows but also because of the success of Beckham and Thierry Henry. For the past five years, MLS has been the perfect non-European landing spot for these kind of stars. If top-flight European teams were not interested in your services, MLS was a place to go to continue to receive the attention, salary, and playing time you think you deserve. MLS was competing for Robbie Keane with second-tier teams in major European leagues and small Euro leagues, and it seemed like these were the kinds of battles the league would keep winning. Any time an older star was thinking about a change of scenery, MLS would be the ideal destination.
But just as MLS was establishing itself as a recognizable league, the competition for stars increased and now MLS has to decide how dedicated it is to attracting big-name but older superstars. The first competitor was the Middle East, as businessmen flush with oil money looked to attract stars to build up their country’s leagues. Specifically, the United Arab Emirates began to flash money at former World Cup stars to attract some attention to the UAE Pro-League. Despite attracting Diego Maradona as manager and a few other borderline name players, the exodus of talent to UAE and other Middle Eastern countries has not happened. However, China and now Australia have replaced the Middle East as MLS competitors with some massive signings and, as opposed to the UAE forays into international waters, these two could pose more danger to the MLS business model.
China sent waves through the international soccer community this summer when UEFA Champions League Finals hero Didier Drogba announced he would play for Shanghai Shenhua, a fairly successful team in the Chinese Super League. Prior to his signing, teammate and long-time rumored MLS target Nicolas Anelka was the star signing for the league. Anelka’s move was even more surprising considering his brother was the manager of former USSF team A.C. St. Louis and had been rumored to be positive on bringing his brother over for a while. With a successful Olympic games bringing positive attention to the sport and China becoming a global superpower, the same economic interests that brought Beckham to the U.S. are now capable of luring marketable players to China. Italy moving its domestic cup final to China is a sign of the economic power of the country in the game, although internal troubles could quickly derail any momentum the league is building.
Now Australia has joined the ranks of countries trying to push its soccer league into international consciousness. Long a country where soccer ranked well behind other national sports (sound familiar?), the Hyundai A-League has suffered through poor attendance and management controversies. However, with new clubs springing up and a strong bid by Australia for the 2022 World Cup, the league looks dedicated to stabilizing and expanding. The biggest sign of this is Sydney FC’s signing this morning of Italian star Alessandro Del Piero. The international soccer star signed a six-month contract worth $2 million and immediately became the headliner for the little league. While this is not the first time the Sky Blues have signed a big-name (they did ink Dwight Yorke a few years back), according to the rumors mill they did beat out the Greek league, Scotland’s Celtic, and even potentially Liverpool for the Azzurri talisman’s signature. Del Piero is the most recent “marquee player” signing, a rule in the A-League that allows clubs to sign players outside of the restrictive salary cap (sound familiar?) to attract high-profile names.
What does all this mean for MLS? We can argue over whether older European stars coming to the U.S. has been a positive for the domestic game, but in terms of attention and coverage from the international soccer community the answer is yes. While MLS has always had to compete with leagues in South America and lower-level European leagues, new moneyed clubs in China and Australia offer players a chance to go into other major media markets to make big money for their declining skills. For MLS, a league that has financially benefited from attracting some big names, this competition may force a strategic decision from the league offices. Should they continue to spend money and compete with the A-League and Chinese Super League for the brightest (but fading) stars? Or should MLS turn its attention to developing younger players who can bring the league prestige for its play and promising talent? Or can the league have both? I suspect not, thus prompting a critical decision point for the league offices.