MLS: Far From a “Retirement League”

via MLS Media Guide

via MLS Media Guide

When David Beckham came to the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, it ushered in a new era for the league. Big players soon found their way to the league, bringing an increase in name and game value.

Unfortunately, it also ushered in a new moniker for the league: a retirement league.

While it’s true Beckham and the current crop of designated players are mostly stars in the twilight of their careers. But before you write off the league as a retirement home, there’s a few points you should consider.

The first point comes in the form of one 5’5” Atomic Ant: Sebastian Giovinco. In January of this year, Giovinco left eventual Champions League runners-up Juventus in a bid for consistent playing time. In one season in MLS, the Ant scored 22 goals while racking up 13 assists in 33 matches. A heavy favorite to capture the Landon Donovan MVP award, Giovinco earned himself a call-up to the Italian national team as well.

At 28, Giovinco represents a potential new trend that the English Premier League saw some 20 years ago. With Italian Serie A rosters overflowing with talent, players like Zola and Gullit transferred to England where they found playing time and prominence–bring the Premier League to its top flight league status it owns today. Certainly, Giovinco could head back overseas, but if he doesn’t he and others like Giovani dos Santos (L.A. Galaxy) could very well represent a new batch of players coming to the States to find consistent minutes in hopes of joining their national teams or clubs in Europe.

However, with rapid expansion (Atlanta United joins the league in 2016 and Los Angeles FC starts in the next few years) the league could soon be the destination for players much like England was two or so decades ago.

As the L.A. Times found out when they spoke with Mexico and Chivas USA striker Cubo Torres, he wanted to stay in the league despite Chivas USA folding in 2014. Instead, Torres signed a five-year deal with the Houston Dynamos. “Major League Soccer is going to become one of the most important leagues in the world in no time,” said Torres. “This league is growing and a lot of top-level players are going to want to come and play in the United States.”

Other designated players have echoed Torres’ views. They include Red Bulls’ striker Bradley Wright-Phillips who revealed he gets calls on a weekly basis from English players wanting to hop across the pond. But one that carries significant weight is Orlando City’s Kaka, he takes pride in being part of a growing league, even if he may not be around for its peak. “For me, it’s the opportunity to be part of this growing phase of MLS,” Kaká said. “Probably, I won’t see the best phase of MLS, but I will be part of this exciting time. In the future, we’re going to be one of the best leagues in the world.”

But it’s not just the designated player depth making the league grow. Rivalries are heating up just in time for increased TV viewership to allow for fan bases to swell.

In the Northwest, the Cascadia Cup often fell into the hands of the Seattle Sounders, but this year not only saw Portland excel past their nearby rivals. In addition to jumping Seattle on the Western table, the Timbers also beat the Vancouver Whitecaps in the playoffs. Keeping the momentum going, the Timbers are now in the finals as they face off with the Columbus Crew this weekend for the championship.

The Eastern Conference brings the same intensity with the years-long battles between the Red Bulls and D.C. United. After four straight years of defeats, the Red Bulls now have a two-year playoff one-up that includes a recent victory over their rivals that set-up an Eastern Conference clash with the Columbus Crew for a spot in the finals. Unfortunately for Red Bulls fans, the dream season came to an end at the hands of the Crew and their own incredible story.

It’s not just the players upping the quality of the league. My own NYC FC recently made waves by bringing in Arsenal legend and head of Man City’s U-21 squad Patrick Vieira to head up our squad after the sacking of Jason Kreis. We can’t wait to see what a legend of the international game brings to the sidelines. If successful, this could serve as a catalyst for other clubs. While pure conjecture, we could even see some of these aging designated players stick around after their playing days to develop the youth–much like Montreal Impact and Chelsea legend Didier Drogba appears to be doing in a fun way.

MLS certainly has an uphill battle in luring big players from ultra rich European leagues, but the steps of separating itself from other “retirement leagues” like the Chinese, Qatari and Indian Super League are apparent. Landon Donovan recently summarized the league’s steps towards a growing product.

“If the resources, if the money and the level of play and the standard of everything around the league continues to improve, players want to be here…you can’t argue with the results over the last five to ten years and you just got to stay on that path.”