As featured on Guardian Sport
It’s strange what falling out with Real Madrid can lead to; the evolution of Major League Soccer and the career of David Beckham can attest to that. Having become increasingly marginalised at the Santiago Bernabéu, and lost his place in the England team, the world’s most recognisable footballer made the shock decision to join LA Galaxy in January 2007.
Beckham became the first marquee name to make the move across the Atlantic since the league formed in 1996. The likes of Pelè, Johan Cruyff, George Best and Franz Beckenbauer all played in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s and 80s but struggled to leave a lasting impression. Beckham, on the other hand, made such an impact that he would forever alter the MLS rulebook on transfers.
The designated player rule was introduced in 2007, allows every MLS team to sign three players outside of their salary cap. The rule altered the way in which MLS sides do their business and has transformed the league into a viable and desirable football destination.
So far over 100 players from 32 countries, ranging from Gambia to Albania, have profited from the designated player rule. For every David Beckham there are dozens of players in the mould of Portland Timbers’ Liam Ridgewell, who have helped develop the international reputation of the MLS.
Former Chelsea striker, Didier Drogba, has just agreed to join Montreal Impact in a move described as one of the biggest days in the clubs history by president Joey Saputo. Drogba’s signing is a huge statement of intent for Impact, who finished bottom of the Eastern Conference last season. The two-time Premier League golden boot winner will add a further heavyweight swagger to the growing roster of ageing stars in Major League Soccer.
Eight years after his move, Beckham’s reported £128 million contract represents the blueprint for European football’s finest senior citizens as they rage against the dying of the light. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Villa, Robbie Keane, Kaká, Andrea Pirlo and the aforementioned Drogba have all succumbed to the allure of US football’s life-preserving qualities. They’re massive names with league titles, Champions Leagues and World Cups to show for their illustrious careers. They could all secure deals in Europe but instead opted for a new challenge in the United States. Why?
Mega money deals, regular first team football, living in some of the world’s most famous cities and the ability to dominate an increasingly competitive league well into your thirties. Oh yes, Major League Soccer has its selling points.
Life in LA will come as welcome respite for Gerrard after more than a decade of being Liverpool’s standard-bearer, and it is unlikely his new teammate Keane – who was last season’s MVP – would still be lauded in the same manner in the Premier League.
The Irishman was influential in capturing Galaxy’s record fifth MLS Cup with 19 goals, including the winner in extra time of the final against the New England Revolution last season. As one of the most popular players in the league Keane is enjoying a renaissance in America’s sunshine state. He has also managed to remain relevant on the international stage and keep his place in the Republic of Ireland side where he is idolised.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of a move to America lies in the fact that the season runs from March to October, with playoffs and the final being decided by the end of December. This leaves a two month window for players to make loan moves and effectively prolong their shelf life in elite European competition.
If we again look at the case of Beckham, without making his transfer to LA Galaxy it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he would play for AC Milan in his mid-30s. Harder still if you factor in a career ending Ligue 1 title with Paris Saint-Germain at the age of 38.
Thierry Henry enjoyed a memorable loan spell at Arsenal from New York Red Bulls in 2012, and rolled back the years with a dramatic winner against Leeds United in the FA Cup. The Frenchman rose from the bench to collect an Alex Song pass, open up his body and curl home, sending thousands of Arsenal fans into nostalgic ecstasy, and the club he holds closest to his heart into the fourth round.
Likewise, Lampard played a full year of Premier League football this year after extending his controversial move to Manchester City beyond its original deadline. His New York City colleague, Villa, plundered two goals in four games as he sojourned to Australia with Melbourne City while the New York project was in its infancy.
No sooner had he made his move to LA and Gerrard was the subject of speculation of a loan return to Liverpool. An unlikely outcome, but a man who has spoken of his temptation at offers he received while at Liverpool may assess his options come the American close season. A loan move to another top club would do little to tarnish his gleaming reputation at Anfield that was at risk in 2005 when he turned down Chelsea.
With players taking so many advantages from their American moves it’s easy to forget the vast array of positives they bring to the MLS. They contribute on the pitch, and the commercial opportunities they offer pay off much of their hefty salaries while raising their new clubs profiles.
Pirlo, who joined New York City on a free transfer this summer, represents a massive coup for a club that is in its debut season. The World Cup winner, who was an integral part of Juventus’s run to the Champions League final, and still plays for the Italian national side, would feature in most top European teams. The 36-year-old has become the archetype for the modern deep-lying midfielder and his effortless, metronomic passing has seen him produce some of his finest form in later life.
With 115 caps Pirlo has no desire to relinquish the stranglehold he has held on the Italy midfield for more than a decade. The idea of their player forming part of one of the top sides at Euro 2016 will be a mouth-watering prospect for his new employers.
The triumvirate Pirlo is set to form with Lampard and Villa will also go a long way to helping the newcomers bridge the gap to the division’s top teams. New York’s ambition in the transfer market is yet to be matched by results in their debut MLS season. They are currently struggling in the Eastern Conference and hopes are high that Lampard and Pirlo’s arrival will signal an upturn in form.
Average attendances across all stadiums last season hit an all time high of 19,151 – partly due to the US men’s teams impressive showing at the World Cup – and figures for this year are already showing a further increase to 20,944. It’s boom time for the MLS and the influx of international superstars only adds to its growing popularity.
Gerrard’s presentation alone attracted a capacity crowd of 27,000 at the Galaxy’s StubHub Centre. Many of those in attendance will have parted with the $120 for a sparkling new jersey adorned with the former England captain’s name and number. Good business by anyone’s definition.
On British soil the appetite for the MLS was non-existent ten years ago, and now a brash stateside accent booms out of the TV as Sky Sports News takes another ad break. Not an uncommon sound in a world of mass Americanisation of mainstream media. The difference is this is an advert for Gerrard and Lampard’s debuts with their new clubs.
Sky will take over from BT as the home of the MLS for the next four years. Two games a week will be shown and the entire close season and MLS Cup final will also feature. It may only be a small amount of games but represents a pivotal development in the positive perception of the league in the UK. Having two of England’s favourite footballing sons plying their trade in the US will only speed up this process.
With the migration of European stars to the States showing little sign of slowing up, Major League Soccer looks set to continue its growth. Simply put the league and football’s best ageing talent have developed an everlasting, symbiotic relationship.
By Harry Gray. Follow @Hgray55