Over the past week news broke that Liverpool and former England captain Steven Gerrard would end his sixteen year run with the club and join Major League Soccer as a member of the L.A. Galaxy. This is great news, but it also proves MLS has not fully reached the apex of acquiring talent, here’s what I mean:
Let’s roll the clocks back to 2007. Famed Man United and Real Madrid midfielder David Beckham decided to leave Europe and join up with the L.A. Galaxy. Beckham, signed the deal only a few months before his 32nd birthday. He had seen his best days in the late nineties and early two-thousands with Man United, peaking in 2001-02 with 11 goals in 28 league appearances.
During the 2003 transfer window he was brought to Real Madrid for €35 million, or roughly $42 million. In the four years he spent with the club, he scored 13 goals in 116 league appearances. While I couldn’t score 13 goals in 1,000 appearances, it’s clear he was declining and on the back end of his career.
Back to the big picture. In 2006, total MLS attendance reached 2.98 million with a 15,504 game average. While nothing to gawk at, it doesn’t come close to this season’s 6.19 million and 19,151 game average. While entertaining, besides a few major players, there wasn’t a name that could give MLS international credibility. David Beckham, a renowned international star, did that. In 98 appearances he scored 18 goals. While he didn’t tear it up, he gave MLS credibility on the world stage.
Fast forward to 2010. Arsenal and Barcelona striker Thierry Henry signs a deal with the New York Red Bulls. He spent eight seasons with Arsenal scoring 174 goals. He spent three more seasons with Barcelona, scoring 35 goals. However, the 2009-10 only yielded four Henry goals. Over the summer, he parted ways with Barcelona just before his 33rd birthday. Again another player with declining numbers as their age increases joining an MLS club.
May I add that I am not saying Beckham and Henry should not have crossed the pond, it was invaluable what they did for the league. But they identify a certain trend regarding international players, specifically Europeans, that do make the switch. Most of these guys have played at the highest level of European football and have been fairly successful. But at some point, they peak and begin the inevitable decline. Once they hit this point, they can either retire, play with a smaller club, or try to play stateside. Soccer is only now becoming a major sport, so why not give it a go?
MLS is reaching the next phase of growing into a world-renowned league. While we’re not sending Lionel Messi to RBNY, we’re still getting some good players from overseas. A recent exception to this depending on how you look at it is Jermain Defoe. After a successful Premier League campaign lasting 15 years, mostly with the Tottenham Spurs, Defoe joined Toronto FC in 2014. At age 32, he appeared in 19 games scoring 11 goals. Another example is L.A. Galaxy man Robbie Keane, who was crowned MVP this year.
But the point right now is not to turn the league into a talent-wielding juggernaut, not yet anyway. While we’re getting there, soccer in the U.S. still isn’t as big as it is around the world. The only way to acquire the Ronaldo’s of the world is to be credible.
Look at it this way. You can get a $10,000 loan from me or from Chase Bank. What are you going to choose? I might give you a better interest rate but I’m nowhere near the reliability of Chase Bank. It’s why Eastern European basketball players come over to play in the NBA. It’s credible. I can’t imagine too many people pay attention to domestic Serbian basketball, but if Michael Jordan joined up, would you maybe pay a little more attention? Maybe.
Now, this season will see two new members of the club, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. After leaving Man City in May, he will have clocked in 20 Premier League years, debuting in 1995. At age 37, he is again on the last leg of his campaign. Scoring 5 goals in 15 games this year, there is no doubt he will contribute to MLS club New York City, but he’s not going to pump out 20+ goals like he did in his prime.
Steven Gerrard is the latest player to jump on the bandwagon. Citing fewer Liverpool starts as his reason for exit. He might be another exception, last season he posted 13 league goals, his highest since 2008-09 when he scored 16.
The point is, acquiring Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard isn’t about turning MLS into a talent haven. It’s about showing that international players care about MLS and want to actively contribute to giving it credibility, which leads to talent, and that’s how you build a world-class league.