Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry, David Beckham, David Villa, Kaka. That is a star-studded list that any soccer manager in the English Premier League (EPL) would be salivating over if this were 2008. Unfortunately it is not 2008 anymore and this group of players all have one thing in common: they all have played or are going to play a substantial role for a Major League Soccer (MLS) team this year.
MLS has fought the notion that it is a retirement home of sorts for aging European stars, yet continues to dip into that very same well. American soccer fans quite enjoy watching the stars that they had previously only been able to watch on TV, in person. Previously, if MLS was able to finagle a deal to bring a top EPL or La Liga team across the ocean for an exhibition match, the stars rarely traveled with the team. It was unfortunate how often every starting player worth their salt would come down with a bad case of the cold, a twisted ankle, or a sore hamstring just prior to every trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
David Beckham was the first star to cross the Atlantic when he signed a 5 year, $250 million dollar mega-deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. His signing is still the biggest signing in American sports history simply because he brought a league back from the dead. As his Galaxy team led by him and Landon Donovan won championships, his fans reveled in the fact that they could watch his beautiful free kicks in person. The Beckham signing started the wave of European stars coming over because let’s face it, would you pass up a huge payday (likely your last payday) to face lesser competition? I would.
The exciting part is that this is just the beginning. Seeing European stars playing in their city (and making tons of money doing it) will eventually lead to the youth wanting to focus on soccer instead of sports like football, basketball, and baseball. As the United States develops its own stars from youth who dream of playing in MLS, the league will grow more competitive. As competition increases we will begin attracting top European talent in their 20’s instead of their 30’s. There is already a rumor of Kaka’s Brazilian teammate Robinho joining him in Orlando, so this process is already starting to take form.
What will the future hold as more stars come from overseas? Will Major League Soccer overtake the National Hockey League as Americas #4 sport? Is that the ceiling or could it someday pass one of the big three? I personally think that football, despite the outpouring of criticism recently, is untouchable. Baseball and basketball seem to have been on a steady decline over the past decade, so maybe the national pastime will be considered boring and arduous in ten years. Before shrugging off the possibility, remember that there was a time when soccer was nothing more than an afterthought. Over the years it has become the most popular sport for America’s youth. Think about it, who do you know that has never played soccer in their life? The issue is that it has never been thought of as a viable career, but that thinking is going to change.
The FIFA World Cup grows in popularity every year and with it so does American soccer. Years from now we may look back and declare the idea that soccer wasn’t a major American sport for so many years absolute lunacy, but it is reality.
That reality is going to change.
For now, though, MLS is a retirement home for aging European players. The stars come here to relax and pad their bank accounts. The soccer fans aren’t fanatics over here, at least not like they are in Europe. The job is relatively stress-free, which leads to a better lifestyle.
You get to make a great deal of money while watching your fans grimace at the sight of you sitting at the end of the bench. Every time you walk into the locker room you are reminded of when you were the savior. You watch your skills diminish in comparison to those around you as you slowly wallow away into oblivion.