But the Beckham effect, which significantly boosted both attendance and sponsorship revenue within MLS, hadn’t gone unnoticed by club owners. Soon came Lampard (37), Villa (33), Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard (35), Juventus’s Andrea Pirlo (36), and A.C. Milan’s Kaká (33), followed this week by Chelsea’s Didier Drogba (37) and QPR’s Shaun Wright-Phillips (33). Any squad fielding these players as a singular force ten years ago would have been considered one of the best teams of all time. Their combined trophies are too numerous to list. And yet, when they take the field, players earning in a year what these superstars make in a week will be passing them the ball, tidying up the play behind them, and doing the running their aging legs can’t.
On the one hand, such an injection of European stardom promises renewed interest in MLS, which has already benefited from the boost of two World Cups in successive years. But the exorbitant salaries being paid to players long past their prime raises the question of whether the league is suffering from short-termism in its thinking. Can MLS, which aims to rival the best leagues in the world by 2022, capitalize on its global stars while capably fostering the next generation of American players, and securing its own future?
* * *
Last month, when the former Bayern Munich star Franz Beckenbauer was asked whether the star German player Bastian Schweinsteiger should leave his home country for the Premier League, Beckenbauer’s response was telling. “Schweinsteiger still has one or two more years at the highest level in him,” he said. “If he still feels like playing football then, I would advise him to consider a move to MLS and to New York.”
For the European footballer in his 30s whose goals are drying up, and whose prospects include retirement or coaching younger players, MLS is a refuge with a very generous paycheck, safe from the scrutiny and pressure associated with playing in Europe. But the question for American soccer fans is whether they should feel comfortable with a professional league that’s the sporting equivalent of a Vegas residency for aging A-list musicians: essentially a retirement home with low stakes and a high payout.
Having such big fish play for such typically low-profile teams raises MLS’s profile overseas, but the league’s huge disparities in terms of talent, fame, and paychecks makes for some comical juxtapositions. Before he quit soccer at the end of 2014, the New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry (France’s leading goalscorer of all time) was partnered with Bradley Wright-Phillips, a player who moved to the U.S. following a couple of months on loan at the League One club Brentford.
Perception, in this case, is reality to European soccer fans. No amount of defeats in meaningless pre-season friendlies to MLS sides will alter their understanding of a league where European dropouts can succeed so spectacularly. While this characterization is, in more than a few cases, unfair, MLS’s long-term plan for sustainability is still a little baffling.