By Chas Donnelly
The MLS has been a destination for aging stars of the game for quite a while, but is the MLS still seen a retirement home, or have they finally broken through that stereotype?
Major League Soccer (MLS) has long been viewed as the retirement home for Europe's elite. With the likes of Beckham, Henry, Kaká, Pirlo, Zlatan and more having all blessed US soccer fields with their class toward the end of their careers, the title of retirement home seems to be a fair assessment, or is it? While the MLS certainly has become a destination for aging stars, it has also made large amounts of progress with the development of youth and becoming a desirable place to play for stars in their prime.
Youth soccer programs in the US have been around for several generations now, yet when compared to those overseas, our programs seem anemic. The MLS has sought to improve the production of home grown players in recent year with the implementation of different strategies to raise the level of play and competition. Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) has had the most immediate impact. Its returns are quick and obvious. What does not deliver a quick return, however is the investment in soccer academies. Developing players through academy programs takes years and many MLS teams don’t have the patience to let players develop or give them game time in fear of sacrificing wins. Now that isn’t to say that there aren’t budding young stars who came up through academies, in fact there are quite a few and those numbers are growing. Take a look at the NY Red Bulls’ player, Tyler Adams, at only 19 he has become a regular amongst the first 11 team sheet. As more and more young players are being given the chance to prove themselves, there is nowhere but up to go for the MLS in regards to production of high-quality homegrown talent.
In addition to developing homegrown talent, the MLS is becoming a desirable destination for stars still in their prime. There is no greater example than Carlos Vela, most definitely in his prime, joined this movement. Vela left one of Europe’s top leagues in Liga Santander to come join the MLS’ newest expansion team LAFC. Vela is only 29 years old and has been selected to play on the wing for a very strong Mexican world cup squad. Vela is joined by the Dos Santos brothers, who are also on the Mexican world cup squad, and Sebastian Giovinco who left a very strong Juventus side to come play in the MLS. As more stars still in their prime join, the MLS is separating themselves from the retirement home stigma.
While these efforts to dispel the retirement home league stereotype are impactful, there are still necessary strides that need to be made to fulfil the league's full potential. Perhaps the MLS should pursue a model more similar to the already successful European leagues, or maybe explore what’s working well for other American sports leagues. A combination of the two approaches could result in the best possible outcome. For example implementing a relegation system, where the bottom couple teams go down a league at the end of the season and then are replaced by the top teams from a lower division. This approach takes a system which already exists in Europe and combines it with an element of American sports. It allows lower league/division players, who aren’t ready for the majors, to grow against tough competition. This solution works well for our Major League Baseball and National Basketball Leagues, yet maintains that European flare, leveraging the best of both worlds for continued growth and success for the MLS.
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