Toronto FC put seven years of complete and utter futility behind them on Monday by announcing the signings of Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe in the same press conference. It doesn’t erase it, but now it’s not at the forefront of discussions about the club… except for Daniel Taylor of The Guardian. He wrote a scathing piece about Defoe’s move, quoting every negative thing ever said about Toronto FC, although neglecting to mention the new brass in place. Even as Defoe fought back against the negative perception, this does raise a global question about where MLS stands at present for players like Defoe, players like Bradley, and where the league stands on the global pedestal. Certainly Taylor has a St. George’s Cross-colored view of what the league is, but what of the star-spangled stripes view, or the view of a general fan? They are changing just as fast as the league is.
Evidently, the English view of the league is still what it was when David Beckham made the bold move to LA: a retirement league. MLS 1.0 was pretty much synonymous with this view. But when Beckham came over (recruited by the same Tim Leiweke that brought in Bradley and Defoe), the league was transformed. Now with major US Men’s National Team players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley coming back, the league has transformed again.
Taylor believes, as do others such as Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood, that Defoe’s World Cup hopes are done because he’s gone to MLS. This is fascinating considering Beckham still played for England after he made the move to LA, and would have been on the plane to South Africa if it wasn’t for his Achilles injury suffered when on loan to AC Milan. Robbie Keane still is banging in goals for Ireland as a Galaxy player just as successfully as he did when he was playing in England too. Was David Beckham by far the best player in MLS during his tenure, as many skeptics would lead you to believe? Many would say no. And Jermain Defoe certainly won’t be the best player in the league when he arrives, or maybe even the best forward. The league is a tougher animal than people in Blighty give it credit for, and this will make Jermain Defoe a better player, even though his World Cup hopes are most likely shot. But what is interesting here is that Defoe certainly had interest from smaller Premier League clubs, but he spurned all of them to come to MLS, which can now be construed as a safer option. So Defoe’s leap of faith is a big one, but is it as big as the player he was introduced with?
Michael Bradley’s move to Toronto FC changes the game when it comes to American players. While many will move on to Europe at some point, they would usually spend a good chunk of time there, until maybe retiring back in the league. Clint Dempsey changed that mold when he came back at age 30, but Bradley came back even earlier at age 26. Is MLS as high of quality as playing for Roma or even Aston Villa? No. But Bradley appeared to follow the same guideline as Defoe did when coming over to the league. While the smaller teams in the Premier League (and other major European leagues consequently) play against a higher quality of team than the big MLS clubs do, MLS does offer something different: A challenge. The general perception of these moves is that they are bad for a player’s career. But more and more players are taking the leap than ever before, and these players are younger and bigger in name. Moving back to MLS doesn’t mean you are eliminating yourself from national team selection. It just means a new challenge is worth more than trying to stay in Europe. Maybe a move to another European club would be a glitzier move, but it would not be as safe as a move to MLS at this point. And with more clubs being added to all levels of American soccer at an astonishing clip, there are even more opportunities than ever before for players to try their luck here.
It’s apparent that critics exist on both sides of the pond. But these moves made by Toronto FC are big ones as MLS moves to a new phase. MLS 3.0 will have more teams, more money involved, and now bigger name players at younger ages than ever before. Is it feasible for MLS to rival the big leagues of Europe yet? Probably not, but every move MLS makes shows its ambition upward and outward, and sometimes that’s all players want to see. More American players are coming back to MLS after striking out in Europe than ever before. MLS has already established itself as the league for CONCACAF players, and just look at the rosters of Costa Rica and Honduras during the World Cup for proof positive of that. MLS has also made strides in player scouting that have brought in players like Diego Valeri, and this too is a great sign for the health of the league. And to top it all off, big name stars can come here and not lose their form or prestige (sans Rafa Marquez).
MLS is far beyond the league that was a glorified retirement home, or even the league David Beckham left. It’s a complex league with many moving parts that continues to evolve and grow at rapid rates, and all the skeptics like Daniel Taylor will just have to accept it.
Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley already have.