Perception that MLS is Retirement Home for European Stars Still Doesn't Fit Reality


Steven Gerrard officially signed an 18-month, $9 million designated player contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Wednesday. The Liverpool captain, who’ll be 35 by the time he arrives in Southern California after the Premier League season finishes in May, should continue to foster the perception held by many across the Atlantic (and some American soccer fans) that MLS remains a retirement league for fading global stars hanging on for a final payday.

That reputation is enhanced by expansion club Orlando City SC inking 32-Brazilian international Kaka to a contract worth more than $7 million, despite all signs that the former AC Milan and Real Madrid star’s best days on the field ended last decade.  There’s also the entire Frank Lampard/NYCFC debacle that isn’t helping dispel this notion. The 36-year-old Englishman won’t join the expansion franchise until the summer, despite being trumpeted as the face of the team along with 33-year-old Spanish World Cup winner David Villa for the last couple months.

Famously, David Beckham joined the Galaxy in 2007 when he was already north of 30, perhaps you heard a little something about that move as it was supposed to revolutionize the North American league … while propelling up the Englishman’s global brand. Thierry Henry, too, linked up with the New York Red Bulls when his peak days with Arsenal and Barcelona were mostly a thing of the past.

Since it’s inception in 1996, MLS continually attracted plenty of veteran foreign players. Bruce Arena’s DC United were built equally on a strong America core (John Harkes, Eddie Pope, etc.) as they were South American talent  — Bolivians Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno — and Central American standouts like Raul Diaz Arce of El Salvador.  Bob Bradley guided the expansion Chicago Fire to the 1998 MLS Cup using the mix of Americans (Chris Armas, Zach Thornton, Jesse Marsch) with European veterans Lubos Kubik and Piotr Nowak.

Colombian ace Carlos Valderrama wasn’t in his prime when he landed in MLS, but he was still quite useful for the Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion and Colorado Rapids. Roberto Donadoni remained on the Italian National Team during his two seasons with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

Even so, MLS detractors are always quick to point toward former Germany World Cup winner Lothar Matthäus’ one woeful season with the MetroStars in 2000 where he played 16 games and, presumably hung out at the Jersey Shore and purchased Levis in bulk, as proof MLS is and forever will be a “retirement” league.

While it’s easy to quibble on the overall impact Beckham made with MLS, he did force a major change in how the single-entity league works with the so-called “Beckham Rule.” Now officially termed “Designated Players,” each MLS team is allowed to sign two players to contracts worth more than the maximum $387,500 allowed per 2014 rules. (“Young” designated players who are under the age of 23 count for much less against the salary cap.) Clubs can also purchase a third DP slot and these players don’t count toward the salary cap.

The perception remains that all the league’s Designated Players (DPs) are aging and past their “sell by” dates, akin to Gerrard or Beckham. That isn’t quite the case. Per the most recent list on Wikipedia(yes, I know, but the best ‘official’ MLS list hasn’t been updated since September and MLS’ byzantine rules, including player allotments remain murkier than most other professional leagues) there are 43 players in total by all definitions under MLS Designated Player contracts — including “young” Designated Players, not including Lampard since it remains unclear which club owns his rights, not the league. The average age of these 43 players is 28. If you excluded Gerrard, Tim Cahill (35), Robbie Keane (34) and Javier Morales (34), the average age drops to almost 27, with the youngest being 20-year-old Honduran Bryan Rochez of Orlando.

Twenty-three current Designated Players in total–so more than half of them–are under the age of 30. Only 12 of the Designated Player under contract make more than $1 million in guaranteed salary. Americans and Argentinians are the most-represented nationalities, with 10 a piece.

The trend in recent years is the league signing more American players, whether it be handing out big-money to the likes of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey to return from Europe, or keeping younger USMNT players like Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez from testing the waters elsewhere.

In MLS and American soccer circles, the Designated Player move that seems to have more intrigue is Houston acquiring Mexican international Erick “Cubo” Torres. The 21-year-old spent last season at Chivas USA, which has since ceased operations, but the league opted to retain his rights. Finding a Mexican star in his prime who thrives in the league has been one of MLS’ long-standing hopes. As of today, Torres is the only Mexican player on a Designated Player MLS contract.

The idea MLS is a retirement home for faded European greats looking to subscribe to HBO and order Papa John’s doesn’t exactly ring true.

European Designated Players under MLS contract: Keane, Jermain Defoe (who will probably wind up back in England this month), Liam Ridgewell, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Gerrard and Villa.

American players currently under Designated Player contracts:Eddie Johnson (DC United); Graham Zusi (Sporting KC); Matt Besler (Sporting KC); Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes); Maurice Edu (Philadelphia Union); DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo); Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy); Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution); Michael Bradley (Toronto FC); Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC).

Post-Beckham there have certainly been plenty of poorly judged Designated Player signings, from Mista at Toronto FC to Denilson at FC Dallas to Branko Boskovic at DC United to even Freddie Ljunberg with Seattle. The Red Bulls likely regret signing Rafa Marquez to a deal worth over $4 million per season. More often than not, MLS DP moves made for reasons where soccer wasn’t the No. 1 priority have fizzled out.

The jury remains out on what Kaka or Gerrard can do, and to be fair, judging the Kaka signing should be looked at through the prism of an expansion team trying to drum up support and create buzz — albeit for a princely MLS sum. There’s some hope, too, that most of the talk about Gerrard is whether or not the 34-year-old still has anything left to contribute on the field, less so about his potential box office/Hollywood appeal or what it will mean to MLS ratings on ESPN. Granted there’s now some talk the Galaxy could loan him back to Liverpool at some point, creating another set of headaches for everyone involved.

In closing, let’s highlight eight successful, noteworthy non-American Designated Player signings by MLS:

8. Álvaro Saborío, Real Salt Lake:  A smart, savvy MLS move by RSL, which brought in the Costa Rican internationl on loan. After the successful loan season in 2010, Saborio earned Designated Player deal — the first handed out by the Utah club. 57 goal in 96 games is a nice return.

7. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Chicago Fire — The well-traveled Mexican international became one of the first post-Beckham Designated Player signing in 2007. Blanco earned MLS Best XI honors in 2008. The Fire posted their best attendance at Toyota Park (located in Bridgeview, Ill.) during the 2008 season, averaging over 17,000 per game.

6. Obafemi Martins, Seattle Sounders: Another smart soccer move by MLS. Although he bounced around Europe, Martins was the right side of 30 when he landed in Seattle in 2013. The Nigerian’s contributed 25 goals in 51 games, helping Seattle win the 2014 Supporters Shield.

5. Fredy Montero, Seattle Sounders: Although he wasn’t a Designated Player at first, Montero later earned that qualification after a successful year on-loan from Deportivo Cali. The Colombian attacker was one of the first Designated Player signings under the age of 25 and young enough that when he was later sold to Sporting in Portugal both MLS and Seattle pocketed a hefty transfer fee.

4. David Beckham, Los Angeles Galaxy — The Beckham signing didn’t transform MLS, despite all the hype, hoopla and lofty press releases generated circa 2007. Galaxy attendance shot up from 20,840 in the year before Beckham to 24,054 in 2007 and 26,008 in 2008 despite the club missing the playoffs each season. Beckham remained an attraction, too, on the road and a brief curiosity on television but proved that sustained television rating remain MLS’ proverbial white whale. Once the initial Beckham-mania wore off and he was allowed to be, mostly, just another player, everything improved and the Englishman left the league with a pair of MLS Cups to his name. The pie-in-the-sky decrees on the day Beckham arrived would have been impossible to achieve, but his impact on the league will continue to be felt if only through the “Beckham Rule.”

3. Thierry Henry, New York Red Bulls — Unlike the Beckham deal that preceded him, Henry’s career in MLS was always about soccer first, rather than branding or ticket sales or whatever else. The Red Bulls went to the playoffs each of his five seasons. He scored 51 goals in 122 appearances. With regularity, Henry could still produce the moments of majesty and wonder to make your jaw drop. New York even won the Supporter’s Shield for best regular season record in 2013. Individually, in his mid-30s, you probably couldn’t have asked more from the Frenchman.

2. Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Columbus Crew — The Argentine midfielder wasn’t a Designated Player when he arrived in 2007, but earned DP status after winning league MVP honors and guiding the Crew to the MLS Cup in 2008. Schelotto wasn’t the typical “big” name (unless you’re a Boca Juniors supporter) but proved to be a smart soccer decision for the Crew first and foremost.

1. Robbie Keane, Los Angeles Galaxy — The Republic of Ireland international was “only” 31 when he arrived in Los Angeles. Maybe he seemed older since he’d bounced around so many clubs in Europe. While we can still question the motives of Beckham’s move to the Galaxy, Keane’s has been all about soccer, although I’m sure he and his family probably enjoy Hollywood. The Galaxy’s record during Keane’s three full seasons is 67-34-35 and they’ve won three MLS Cups during his spell, which began in the summer of 2011. Keane’s scored 53 times in 84 games and by most measurables has been the most-successful European Designated Player in MLS history.