Major League Soccer is quickly growing, but has often been called a retirement league. The 2015 season may be beginning stages of what can be called MLS 3.0, and also the beginning of the end of this retirement league label. Don Garber originally coined MLS 2.0 in 2008 when referring to the expansion of Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake in 2005, and we’re quickly approaching the new and improved version, MLS 3.0. Think of the league’s present state as MLS 2.7 or 2.8. Logistics aside, MLS is growing in size and strength, but reputation is still hard to come by. The 2015 season will be interesting as New York City FC and Orlando City Soccer Club enter the league. Although NYCFC hasn’t done much; Orlando has already signed five players to their inaugural roster. The only thing NYCFC has done is announce their official badge, which was unveiled earlier tonight. Following the additions of NYCFC and Orlando, more expansion is on the horizon. David Beckham already stated he will exercise his ownership option and place a team in Miami, although no timeframe has been set on entrance to the league. Miami will be the 22nd team, and then the league will further expand to two more cities and have 24 teams in place by 2020. These expansion events are all facts and have been well stated, and go a long way in furthering the league’s growth. These three teams will add three more attractive destinations to the league’s disposal for luring designated players, and that’s where it gets tricky. Will these three teams attract young, talented designated players, or world-class players in their mid-30s? If it’s the latter, then the retirement league label will continue to hold.
The league has gained a lot of respect and improved its reputation since the beginning of MLS 2.0, but the retirement league label has clung to the league for quite some time now. As it goes, players who normally wouldn’t play in MLS during their prime years tend to sign with the league towards the end of their career. Essentially to play against what is considered to be lesser competition, and earn a pretty nice paycheck while doing so. This idea built momentum during the early years of the designated player rule, and continues today as some of the world’s top players are rumored to move stateside, but only after the World Cup or their current contract expires. Esteban Cambiasso, Didier Drogba, Samuel Eto’o, Diego Forlán, Miroslav Klose, Frank Lampard, David Villa, and Xavi have all been linked to a move to MLS within the last three months. These players are all over 30 years of age, and would most likely retire following their MLS contract. The retirement league notion would provide a whole new meaning to Eto’o’s goal celebration if he were to come to MLS.
There have been a handful of notable players who signed with the league either as a designated player or free agent, but they all have one thing in common: They were all 31 years of age or older. In 2007, David Beckham was the league’s first marquee signing, and he was 31 years old at the time. Juan Pablo Ángel, Cuahtémoc Blanco, Claudio Reyna, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Claudio López, and Freddie Ljungberg also signed as designated players during the first two seasons of the designated player rule. Rafael Márquez, Andres Mendoza, Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans, and Juninho have also come, earned their paycheck, and went on their way. The common factor here is age. Yes, Thierry Henry is 36 years old and continues to be a world class player. Yes, Marco Di Vaio is 37 years old and has scored 25 goals in 50 games for the Montreal Impact. Yes, Robbie Keane is 33 years old and is a constant goal-scoring threat. The point is that the age of these players, regardless of talent and performance, is why MLS is still considered to be a retirement league.
The reason of age is why I agree that MLS still is a retirement league. I don’t like saying it, but it is. It doesn’t matter if the quality of play is improving because age is the true issue. The principle is that MLS is a league where older well-known players can go play professional soccer, earn a nice paycheck, and live in an international city such as Los Angeles, New York City, and soon to be Miami. Jermaine Defoe’s arrival this season continues this trend. He arrived to MLS in style by scoring two goals, but he’s also 32 years old. It’s great that a player with his talent is in the league, but MLS needs players who are in their mid-to-late 20s. The arrivals of young players such as Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Gilberto, and Diego Valeri are extremely positive and are just what this league needs. The league needs to continue to sign these type of talented players who are in the mid-20s, not their mid-30s, if they want to permanently shed the retirement league label. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement, set to come following the 2014 MLS season, will certainly help as both the salary cap, and designated player spots are expected to increase. The extra bit of leeway on the teams’ financial books and room for additional designated players would help in bringing these young, talented players to the league. The new CBA combined with the attractive locations of New York City, Orlando, and Miami are sure to bring very talented, and hopefully young players to the league. All that’s left is for these teams and the rest of the league to deliver.