For an American to think that any professional sports league in the United States needs to look elsewhere for its best talent is an oddity. While a solid group of homegrown stars have graced the pitch both at home and abroad over the last decade or so, American players still have not been able to make Major League Soccer their own.
Now, MLS has turned to a not-so-fresh crop of stars who are undoubtedly a few years past their primes. While they still show flashes of their world-class form that made them elites in their European clubs, the strategy surely cannot be sustained for too long.
The fact that these players are almost all near the twilight of their careers is what is most disappointing. Granted, it was an exciting time for MLS soccer (well, about as exciting as it can get when it comes to the beautiful game and the U.S.) when the likes of Cuauhtémoc Blanco and David Beckham marveled fans in the mid-to-late 2000s. They showcased the talent that made them stars in their respective countries for years.
It was especially interesting to watch Beckham, the former giant of Manchester United and Real Madrid, connect with American golden boy Landon Donovan on numerous occasions. When Blanco performed his signature “hop,” he looked like his younger self at Club America in Mexico. And who could forget his MVP performance in the 2008 MLS All-Star game?
Still, the magic can only last for so long with (very) veteran players. Beckham’s relatively short time in Los Angeles was marred by injuries and Beckham’s wishes to continue to play in Europe, as he spent much of his offseason with AC Milan. Even Blanco did not stay for too long (just three seasons) and eventually returned to Mexico.
So all of this begs a few questions: Can MLS serve as a legitimate option for international superstars and not just be a place to play until retirement or they want to return to the big leagues? And can the Americans start to really take ownership of thier own game and have more of their stars bring legitimacy to MLS?
Donovan is the most notable of the past generation of players who have taken that step to making American players much more respected worldwide. While Donovan was loyal member of the LA Galaxy, he has tried his luck in the Premiere League with Everton and the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich. What must strike many about Donovan is that he is not looking for fame or glory elsewhere. He wants football in America and MLS to succeed.
What is even more encouraging, in recent years, has been American players choosing to return home and play for MLS. Clint Dempsey has brought even more legitimacy to the Seattle Sounders of MLS even though he has made a decent name for himself in the Premiere League with stints at Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur.
Midfielder Michael Bradley, who has served as a real presence in the US Men’s National Team’s midfield, has also made his way throughout many European clubs and has landed back in America to play for Toronto FC.
To the American fan, it must be great to actually see many of the beloved USMNT players actually playing for a domestic club, but is this a trend that will, or can, continue? It would be a pretty safe bet to make that MLS will never rise to the level of La Liga, the Premiership, the Bundesliga or Serie A. Still, it may be something the American fans of ago probably wanted when they ventured to squeeze the last bit of talent out of the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer for the New York Cosmos of the 1970s and 80s.
You do have to tip your hat to Thierry Henry and even Rafael Marquez for making the New York Red Bulls one of the more entertaining clubs in MLS. Regardless of their advanced age, it is still encouraging to think that such big names could have ever be seen on the backs of MLS uniforms. So in a way, this is still just the start. Now that Jermain Defoe has joined Toronto, we may start to see a shift in power, if ever so slight. Maybe one day we will have more Donovans and Dempseys to make it on the world stage and bring pride back to the Americans…just maybe.
But, it may just be me, but I find it hard to believe we will see the names Ronaldo or Messi on MLS rosters in the years to come.