“I‘m not ready to relax on a beach yet,” quipped Ashley Cole as he signed for AS Roma in the summer of 2014. Cole’s views on the possibility of gracing Major League Soccer (MLS) with his presence were, in light of his subsequent move to LA Galaxy, ironic in the extreme, but they did betray the view that many in Europe – players, coaches and fans alike – share: that the US is little more than a glorified retirement community for players that don’t fancy seeing out the remainder of their playing days in China, the Middle East or Australia.
The perception problem isn’t just external either. This view has, in some cases, been internalised, causing supporters of teams participating in America’s traditional “big four” sports – American football, baseball, basketball and hockey – to take a sneering, snide view of MLS. Why bother supporting a league consisting of cast-offs and has-beens when their other sports boast the best players in the world? A culture that encourages instant gratification means that for many, either MLS can go hard and become the strongest league now, or go home.
The issue is, they’ve already tried that. For a brief moment during the 1970s and ‘80s, MLS’s precursor, the North American Soccer League (NASL) ignited US intrigue in a sport that had previously been relegated to a niche interest. NASL’s organisers and team owners did this chiefly by breaking out the chequebooks in a big way, signing the world’s biggest stars like Pelé, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer in the twilight of their respective glittering careers.
Ultimately, NASL was to serve as a cursory warning of the dangers of the superstar model. As the costs began racking up and the initial influx of big name players wasn’t followed by any significant second wave, crowds fell and teams began folding. The league itself collapsed in 1985, less than two years after Beckenbauer had last turned out for the New York Cosmos.
From the ashes of the league came Major League Soccer in 1996. Since then, the league has grown steadily, adding more franchises than it has lost and seeing attendances rising steadily. The likes of the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have appropriated aspects of European fan culture in an attempt to eradicate the sterile, stale atmospheres that for so long restricted football in the US to being a novelty rather than a full-blown sport. The infrastructure is improving too, with 14 of the 20 teams playing in their own purpose-built stadiums, rather than cavernous NFL or MLB stadiums that they’d struggle to fill.
MLS has also sought to combat the same thing happening with overpaid superstars using a designated player system, introduced in 2007, that restricts teams to having all but three of their players tied to a wage cap. However, its effectiveness in creating stable teams is questionable. LA Galaxy, traditionally the worst offenders when it comes to recruiting big names from Europe, effectively engaged in sabotaging their own season last year by breaking up a winning team in order to accommodate their latest marquee signing, Steven Gerrard. New York City FC could only finish a lowly eighth in the Eastern Conference despite having built their squad around legends David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo.
Toronto FC are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Galácticos model employed in LA and New York. Founded in 2006, they’ve traditionally used their designated spots for somewhat more obscure names that are arguably more astute signings; two of their current DPs are US internationals Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, both of whom have experienced success in the league prior to their time in Canada. It is their final Designated Player, however, who is by some distance the most interesting.
Sebastian Giovinco, in many ways, fits the bill as another European washout. A star prospect at one of Europe’s mega-clubs – in Giovinco’s case, Juventus – and blessed with pace and creativity, traditionally two of the attributes most likely to desert a player as he advances in age (Kaká, now plying his trade at Orlando City, is a perfect example). But that is where the similarities end. Giovinco may not have been a fixture in an extremely talented Juventus side, but he was getting enough time on the pitch to satisfy most, and he had no shortage of suitors across Italy thanks to a particularly successful spell at Parma.
Yet last year he traded a bright future in Serie A for a destination most players of his age – he was only 27 at the time – scoff at, potentially sabotaging his involvement in Antonio Conte’s national team setup in the process. Having failed to ever win the number 10 shirt at Juve that he had coveted ever since joining the club aged nine, most commentators declared the decision to move across the Atlantic as a white flag, a signal of acceptance that he would never be good enough to achieve his aim. What many saw as a sign of his unwillingness to push himself and make the most of his ability has proved to be one of the most savvy career moves by a player in recent memory.
Despite Toronto failing to win any silverware, Giovinco emerged as the league’s most exciting player. Twenty-two goals in 33 appearances far outstrips his output in Italy and saw him named as the MLS MVP for the season. Those inclined to discredit such achievements as evidence of an over-qualified player inflating his numbers – and ego – need only look at the plaudits he is receiving after his maiden season stateside (he was listed as one of the best 100 players in the world by The Guardian and L’Équipe, among others) and the attention he is receiving from clubs such as Barcelona.
America has always been fascinated with the idea of the pioneer. From those first intrepid souls who travelled over on the Mayflower, to Daniel Boone charting the path through the Appalachians, to John Henry driving his way through mountains with his trusty hammer. This hero-worship of trailblazers has been often translated to sports; Jackie Robinson, for example, is lauded as an exceptional baseball player, but as the first man to break the colour barrier in baseball, he is deified to the point where is the only player to have had his famous number 42 retired league-wide.
To compare Giovinco with Robinson is clearly hyperbolic, but his is a story that taps into the same vein of breaking perceptions. He is, in many ways, the first player who could have continued to carve out a highly successful career in a top European league but instead saw MLS as a viable option. To use another analogy to America’s pastime, just as Babe Ruth did after the Black Sox Scandal and Cal Ripken Jr did after the ‘94 players’ strike in MLB, Giovinco’s arrival has been precision engineered by fate at a moment when MLS, while still growing, has struggled to shake off its tainted image.
Time will tell just what impact Formica Atomica has on Major League Soccer, both in the present and in the future. If he can maintain his prolific form and, particularly, his place in the Azzurri side, then while the rest of MLS may be left cursing his name next season, they could be praising it more than any other in a decade should his impact convince others to finally take the league seriously.
By Matt Clough. Follow @MattJClough