With Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard set to follow in the footsteps of David Beckham and Thierry Henry, by spending their final years as footballers in the United States, MLS has unfairly developed a reputation as a retirement league for finished players. It’s much more than that.
As a soccer fan living in the United Kingdom, I’ve heard first-hand the ignorant comments that MLS is commonly perceived as nothing more than a league for players past their prime — a place where former stars go to top up their pension fund and promote their image, before hanging up their boots for the final time. Such a reputation is rather unfair.
Players who have come to the MLS with the idea that the League is easy have commonly received a culture shock. For all success, or lack of it, cannot be attributed to one player, high profile successful footballers have endured tough times in the USA. David Beckham’s well documented initial struggles at LA Galaxy have been matched by other former stars, such as Jermain Defoe at Toronto. The fact that big names have found the league and culture difficult perhaps indicates that it’s a competition with far more to it than a retirement plan for bygone stars. The warning signs are there for the likes of Gerrard and Lampard. Fail to fully commit to soccer at your peril.
Also, the perception that players need to secure work elsewhere to be considered for national sides is wrong. Tim Cahill’s performances at the 2014 FIFA World Cup demonstrated that his time in MLS had done nothing to hamper his footballing ability. Similarly, the achievement of the United States Men’s National Team was widely regarded as the surprise of the World Cup. Many of the stars at the heart of the American effort had been playing in MLS and competed much better than many of the heralded players from better leagues.
Arsene Wenger’s comments back in late 2014 that MLS is a league fit for players to retire in is indicative of the cultural snobbery and perceived inferiority of MLS by many in Europe. It is true that Major League Soccer is still relatively young, yet the vision is to build a league offering competitive, entertaining soccer.
The fact that players who were playing in MLS are still highly sought after by other top clubs around the world, demonstrates that the league is not for fools. Beckham went on to play for AC Milan and PSG, whilst Lampard and Gerrard will both join the MLS later this season, having played with two of the best sides in the Premier League — a top-flight division regarded as amongst the best in world soccer.
It’s true that big names have offered the paying American spectators the opportunity to witness terrific footballers, albeit in the twilight of their careers. Nevertheless, it is the core American talent and growing crowds that makes the MLS such an appealing prospect. Few leagues around the world can boast such an abundance of home-grown talent, even if Jurgen Klinsmann has encouraged some young stars to play abroad.
Klinsmann sparked a reaction within the MLS fraternity when he commented, “Some kids would benefit from the environment in Europe, while others are best suited to continue their growth in MLS.” What he says does hold truth, but the hope is that the MLS can continue to grow, to the point that better players find it an attractive proposition, in turn, giving youngsters a terrific platform to develop in their home country. The fact that the league isn’t overwhelmed with foreign players offers a better development plan for young prospects than the Premier League, where opportunities for academy players are notoriously challenging to come by.
As opposed to holding a reputation for signing older players, if the MLS continues to integrate and cultivate American players, it will gain a standing as a league built around player development, not just short term stardom. This also generates the possibility that, in time, some of the world’s best players may begin their playing careers in MLS.
Major League Soccer has done much more than offer young American players a platform to perform; it has given struggling professionals a second chance to reinvigorate their careers. There’s perhaps no better example of this than New York Red Bulls’ prolific forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, son of the former Arsenal striker Ian Wright. Wright-Phillips had previously plied his trade in the lower reaches of the English Football League. His initial goalscoring form for Charlton Athletic in League One stuttered after the club won promotion to the Championship. Notching a solitary goal in 19 appearances, Wright-Phillips’ future prospects looked bleak — that was before the Red Bulls came calling.
Since making the switch across the Atlantic, Bradley hasn’t looked back. The chance of a fresh start in a league where he’s acknowledged as an important player has witnessed a re-birth of Wright-Phillips’ talents in front of goal. Similarly, fellow Englishman and Red Bulls teammate Lloyd Sam found his career stagnating in English football. Like Wright-Phillips, the fresh opportunity abroad has reinvigorated Sams’ career, where chances would have been limited for him in other top European Leagues.
As it stands, the standard of MLS cannot match the top leagues in Europe, but the crowds continue to turn out to watch American stars, mixed with foreign talent. Although employing former outstanding players does serve to raise the profile of teams, the commitment of some of these footballers has sometimes been questionable. The core of MLS is much more than a retirement league and its perception as such, throughout Europe, must change.
Just as Manchester City began their transition from a struggling side to title contenders with marquee signings, MLS has had to follow a similar path. A comparatively young league on the other side of the world has naturally not been an attractive prospect to European superstars in their prime. Despite this, MLS sides have sought to recruit American players, mixed with European stars in the latter stages of their career. The purpose behind this is not solely to recruit older players, but to spread the profile of MLS. The credibility of MLS as a competitive league is still developing, yet it is highly likely that more quality players will become interested in soccer after hearing and reading about other high profile stars’ experiences — whether they’re old in soccer terms, or not. Who wouldn’t want the chance to fill Thierry Henry’s boots, or be labelled the next David Beckham?
In a few years time, if the up curve of soccer popularity in America continues, MLS may experience a shift in reputation, just as Manchester City has. After a few good players have played for you, it often doesn’t take long before others are keen to follow.
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