When players move to Major League Soccer in the twilight of their career, there’s a common assumption that they’ll have it easy in the retirement home of football. The success of the Beckham experiment has led to a slew of well-known stars making the move across the pond to spend the last of their talent, with Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Didier Drogba (combined age of 145) taking to the pitch in what is likely to be the final chapters of their respective playing careers.
It’s easy enough to imagine Pirlo pottering around the field – with his teammates compensating with a lot of extra running – but most former Premier League players are known for their physical attributes above all else. In the case of Gerrard and Drogba especially, it was a key element of their game, and it often gave them the edge over their opponents as they ran them into the ground.
It’s wrong to think of either man as a bruiser, but strength, pace, stamina and carrying the ball were key elements for both in their primes. As they entered the latter part of their careers in England, their ability to dominate games – and their opponents – diminished, to the point that they were caricatures of their former selves, and in Gerrard’s case, arguably holding the team back if they were still playing regularly. Of course, they were still well respected, and their prior achievements are the reason why they moved to MLS in the first place. Fans wanted to see what all the fuss was about; it makes sense from a marketing perspective as they’re bound to sell shirts, while raising the profile of the team internationally.
There’s also the fact that MLS is known for being a highly competitive league, which prides itself on a high level of fitness throughout the squads. In many respects, it’s similar to English football. The standard is definitely lower overall, but physical battles are an integral part of the game, and players have come to recognise that in many ways it can be more difficult than they first expected.
The climate is another thing to consider, as the brutal summer schedule serves to sap the strength of superstar and stalwart alike, and the older men are always going to be more susceptible to both extremities, as well as an increase in altitude.
Didier Drogba has said that he thinks it’s harder to play in MLS than the Premier League, but he still managed to score 12 goals in just 14 appearances for Canadian outfit Montreal Impact. He was recently close to joining the backroom staff at Chelsea, but he’s opted to extend his playing career one more season. He’s thrived since the move and looked a completely different player to the one who left Stamford Bridge as a shadow of the former striker who used to strike terror into some of the best defenders in world football.
Take Steven Gerrard. The former England captain was a phenomenon in his prime, with his box-to-box movement earning him third place in the Ballon d’Or in 2005. His exploits for Liverpool over the years are legendary, but there’s no doubt that he had been slowing down during his last season at his boyhood team. His move to LA Galaxy in 2015 was slightly left-field as it was believed he could still play a role as an impact sub for the Reds, while continuing in his role as captain. The idea of a new challenge, as well as the sunny sights of Los Angeles were enough to turn his head, and he later admitted that he hadn’t been offered a new contract with the Reds anyway.
His presence has sometimes served to destabilise the team despite decent results, as the team suffers at times due to his lack of mobility. In fact, it it seems like it could soon be the end for one of the last of the golden generation to still be plying their trade: “It could be my last season as a footballer. I certainly don’t want to feel like I’m feeling right now come next year. Going on the road, playing on turf, playing at altitude, playing in humidity, those are the hurdles that I’ve had to face over the last three months that I wasn’t aware of. Every away game has a different challenge.”
If a physical specimen like Steven Gerrard is struggling to adapt to the rigours of football in the US, why is Drogba still able to produce the goods as he draws ever closer to his 40th year? Is he just an incredible athlete, and was Gerrard off the mark with his comments? It turns out, away games and travelling are more important to the players than they might have thought. It’s also worth noting that Gerrard is one of the few players (along with David Beckham) who is allowed to fly first class, instead of in economy with the rest of the team, and he’s still feeling the effects of the transition. (Lampard, Pirlo, and David Villa fly with the team as New York City FC policy, in an attempt to reduce any ill feeling between the squad due to the disparity in their wages.)
Drogba himself also noted the difference in culture when compared to the Premier League, and away games were also high on his agenda: “It’s a different challenge. People think it’s easy to play there. Believe me, it’s more difficult than playing in the Premier League because of the travel. You can stay at an airport for three or four hours if you miss your flight, so that is what is really levelling the game. There are not a lot of away wins because when the teams arrive they are tired. There are also some very good players in the league.”
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For players used to the relative proximity of English football, the idea of flying for hours to play domestic games must be worrying, and it seems that it takes more than you would expect to acclimatise when plying your trade in MLS. It’s also interesting that the quality of players was more of an afterthought for the striker, rather than a deciding factor. So, why is Drogba thriving, while players like Lampard and Gerrard are struggling to live up to their illustrious billing? It’s not like he was in great form when he left the Blues in the first place.
In his final season at Chelsea, Drogba was laboured and leggy as he scored just four goals in 28 league appearances, and it was widely agreed that his time as a top striker in the league was over. It gives more credence to the idea that MLS is a lot easier because of his goalscoring record since joining, but it might just be more apt to say that defenders and goalkeepers alike aren’t used to dealing with the calibre of his movement and goalscoring abilities, which will always help clinical forwards to embellish their records.
As recently as January, there have been calls to bring Drogba back to Stamford Bridge as part of the coaching team, and it seems that he was seriously considering taking up the offer, probably in part due to the rigours of playing domestic football in MLS. As it is, Drogba has decided to stay for the last year of his contract, and he’ll continue to light up the league for one final season. He may be a spent force in English football, but he’s still a cut above many in the US, no matter how hard it is to acclimatise.
Positionally, it seems that playing up front is the route to success in MLS, as long as you still have the desire to play for as long as you possibly can. Jermaine Defoe recently had a decent spell for Toronto FC (with 11 goals in 19 league appearances) but Robbie Keane is the undisputed star, and as a designated player at LA Galaxy, he also enjoys first class treatment with Gerrard.
He has taken to his environment with no real issues, and he’s been prolific since moving from Spurs in 2011. Seventy-three goals in 108 games is nothing to be sniffed at, and it seems that he had no problems with the travelling. He’s adapted and, in his role as captain and goalscorer, he’s one of the most important players in the team. It’s a long way from 2012 when he was named as an ‘unidentified fan’ by Reuters when he was snapped in a photo with David Beckham and Russell Brand during a LA Lakers game.
Landon Donovan is known for being one of the few players to truly speak his mind so it’s worth noting his opinion on Lampard and Gerrard after their respective moves to MLS: “They’ve been perceived [to have played] well but it’s not easy. Sometimes I think people have this impression that you can go there and it will be easy. The players will tell you, and I think Steven spoke about this openly, that it’s very difficult, not because there’s more quality than at Liverpool but it’s difficult to travel and obviously the game is fast. The Premier League’s the fastest in the world but the pace is probably faster than you realise.”
The point is, even though it’s not as tough as the top flight, it’s not as easy as you might expect, as Gerrard seems to be finding out the hard way. No matter how great you were, time catches up with all of us, and it’s impossible to expect players to roll back the years regularly, as he plays in a key area of the field and needs protection in the same vein as the aged legs of Pirlo. Jetlag and tiredness are only going to further diminish his powers, and he regularly faces players at peak fitness.
It’s also worth mentioning Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored 27 goals in 32 games for New York Red Bulls in the 2014 season. His goalscoring record has been sporadic in English football, but he gained numerous accolades, including the MLS Golden Boot, in the last couple of years as he continued to break records at the club. Strikers just tend to do better in the US, and he was 29 when he started finishing off chances for fun. Even so, as long as you still have the desire, moving to MLS can be a great last stop for a storied career, but you’re going to have to work, and older players can often find it overwhelming if they’re not willing – or able – to put a shift in.
Legendary Arsenal striker Thierry Henry saw out the last five years of his career playing for New York Red Bulls, and he said that respect wasn’t automatically given in the US, no matter your pedigree. You have to show people that you can still play, while collecting more air miles than the average transatlantic businessman who enjoys flying on planes as a hobby. And possibly in economy, which is a world away from the luxury that elite level players are used to.
Instead of being overwhelmed, Drogba is overwhelming defences, and Robbie Keane and Wright-Phillips are more examples of players that can make MLS seem like a lesser league, purely due to their overwhelming success, since most of us last saw them take the field. Drogba probably can’t cut it anymore in the Premier League, but just because he’s scoring goals, it doesn’t mean that he’s having an easy ride while doing so. If anything, they all seem to be arguing that the journey is the worst part of the ride into retirement.
By James Milin-Ashmore. Follow @jamoashmore