Major League Soccer, still relatively young, just past its awkward teenage years, is occasionally a strange place. Sometimes it performs like a talented young prodigy undone temporarily by a growth spurt – which means between the posh passes and savvy feints, he sometimes stumbles over his own fast-growing feet.
Consider the past few days of fast-moving MLS signing news. This is a week of celebration for Major League Soccer, where the league’s very serious (buttoned up owners, officials and sponsors) and the league’s very talented (cream-of-the-crop ‘keepers, defenders and attackers) are gathered in Denver for the annual All-Star Game.
All-Star games are, by obvious definition, where the league’s best and brightest hog up the limelight. But the star men of MLS keep arriving – and at a rate that is proving too rapid for the usual processing into operations.
Yes, something funny is happening this week: In some ways, plenty of MLS fans will be eager to get past the “distraction” of All-Star festivities and get to this weekend, Week 22 of the regular season, which is the place to see the league’s newest wow-wow men perform in more meaningful moments.
Andrea Pirlo. Frank Lampard. Giovani dos Santos. Shaun Wright-Phillips. Didier Drogba.
They are all MLS property now, and they are men of a certain accomplishment. None will be on the field at the All-Star game, where MLS selections will face Totttenham on Wednesday evening at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park just outside Denver. (Major moment of fame for the tidy little ground in suburban Commerce: the unforgettable 2013 Snow Clasico.)
Yes, most of them are into their 30s, some well so. But let’s get past that for now and enjoy the moment.
Because a year ago we were talking about these guys in actual pursuit of high achievement on some mighty distinguished stages.
Plus, they all have practical utility to go with their global influence and name recognition, even if Pirlo, Lampard, Wright-Phillips and Drogba are undeniably on the backside of their exalted career trajectories.
Pirlo didn’t get on the scoresheet as he debuted last weekend for fast-improving New York City FC. But his effect on the match in 30-odd minutes was quietly profound. His ability to slow the game for teammates and his skill at eliminating two, three or perhaps four defenders with one pinpoint mid-range pass can absolutely be a game-changer. It was definitely useful in a crackerjack of a match, a 5-3 NYC win over Orlando.
Pirlo is 36, and we’ll see how the Italian giant and 2006 World Cup winner is holding up at age 38, when his 2.5-year MLS hitch is up. For now, personally, there isn’t a more interesting figure in the league.
And how much better might Pirlo be once he gets an experienced hand like Lampard alongside? Admittedly, the longtime English international’s entry into MLS has been as been every bit as awkward and clumsy as a junior high school dance.
He was coming over in the winter transfer window. Until he wasn’t. But then he did finally arrive in Jason Kreis’ club and was set to get on the field almost a month ago. Until he wasn’t. So we all wait to see what Lampard has to offer once we get past the politics and uncooperative ankles and such. We do know he was a two-way marvel for years at Chelsea and a nifty tool in Manuel Pellegrini’s belt last year at the Etihad. Safe to say, Lampard will have his moments of magic in the States, even if they don’t arrive at the same rate as those salad days at Stamford Bridge.
A midfield that includes Pirlo, Lampard, U.S. international Mix Diskerud (not to mention exciting young Ghanaian Kwadwo Poku and underrated MLS mainstay Ned Grabavoy) is a potent and evocative mix of age and skill set. That back line still looks iffy, but matches at Yankee Stadium now have more star power than any other MLS ground.
Meanwhile, Gio Dos Santos does seem up for it; soon after the Mexican star helped El Tri lift the latest CONCACAF Gold Cup trophy, the former Barcelona and Real Madrid attacker was posting on Instagram about “New Beginnings/New Challenge.” That came with a photo of himself in a Galaxy kit.
Shaun Wright-Phillips joins his brother, Bradley Wright-Phillips, across the river from NYCFC at Red Bull Arena. Shaun was always the bigger name, the bigger talent. He’s three years older and, alas, was part of the everything-must-go cleansing at Loftus Road, where Queens Park Rangers have been relegated once again. That’s why the suddenly frugal Red Bulls could absorb a man who has 36 England caps.
Clearly, his best days at Chelsea and Manchester City are behind him. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective figure in spots for Jesse Marsch’s team, one that continues to play an exciting brand of pressing, attacking soccer. Bradley Wright-Phillips isn’t coming anywhere near his breakout, MLS record matching 27 goals of 2015. (Oh, where have you gone, set-up-man supreme Thierry Henry?) So Marsch needs a little more goal-scoring “umph” to get his team out of the gaggle in the Eastern Conference standings.
Drogba, in some ways, may be the most interesting among this fun bunch of MLS summer signings. The new Montreal Impact arrival best fits the demeaning (but not completely untrue) narrative of MLS as a “retirement league” for Euros of a certain age.
Even with that, the 37-year-old Chelsea legend – 381 games, four Premier League titles across two spells for the West London club – can leave an imprint at his final career stop.
The Impact is just hanging on in the league playoff race. (Approaching the two-thirds point, this is about where it’s safe to actually see relevance in, and start paying attention to the league standings.) Drogba’s mere presence can be a boost, and proper utilization by manager Frank Klopas – save the Ivorian legend for big moments and big games, Frank – is the best hope for a positive return from a competitive standpoint. Either way, they’ll sell some additional tickets around Stade Saputo for signing up the Ivory Coast’s all-time top scorer (65 goals in 105 international appearances).
None of this means Wednesday’s MLS All-Star game isn’t worth watching. Tottenham’s Harry Kane (30 goals last year in an absolute wonder season for the breakout kid) is worth two hours in front of the TV by himself.
Spurs also brought regulars Hugo Lloris, Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, Nabil Bentaleb, Christian Eriksen, Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela. And right now, any chance to see MLS MVP frontrunner Sebastian Giovinco shouldn’t be missed; the diminutive Italian frontrunner really is something else.
So, there’s star power. There is just a lot more of it waiting back at MLS grounds far and wide, where the league’s increasingly aggressive buying practices are importing the splashy names at rate yet unseen in MLS.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.