Major League Soccer isn’t a Retirement League
Soccer is more than just a sport. It’s passion; it’s a religion – it’s a work of art. It doesn’t matter where you play the game; it’s the same set of rules, playing time and ball.
Some soccer fans might agree that Europe is home to some of the most prominent soccer leagues in the world, but that shouldn’t discredit the level of competition in other leagues globally, especially Major League Soccer, America’s Division I professional soccer league.
The MLS is set to kick off its 22nd season next month, but the signing of 31-year-old Nigel De Jong and 35–year-old Ashley Cole to the LA Galaxy has added to the perception that MLS is a retirement league.
MLS doesn’t have players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Neymar, who are in their prime of their career, but MLS has only been around for 20 years. In that time span, it has grown from 10 to 20 club teams, three of which are in Canada. The league has built 14 soccer-specific stadiums since, and, most importantly, it has built a platform where young Americans can excel in soccer.
Getting young American soccer players to commit early to the game will only grow the league and help MLS escape its reputation as a retirement league.
Landon Donovan, top scorer for the U.S. Men’s National team, is the perfect example of an American who flourished in MLS, where he spent his entire professional career, excluding loaning periods to England.
Donovan, now retired, signed his first contract at age 17 with German club Bayern Leverkusen.
Donovan’s career in Europe was a short one. Not for lack of skill, but because he was homesick, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Donovan felt more comfortable playing in his country than abroad, where things might not have turned out so well for him – or, as the critics might put it, as he couldn’t keep up with the European level.
Donovan decided to grow with MLS so that future young American soccer players can do what they do best and happily play at home.
Yes, it’s possible a player might benefit more playing in fast-paced leagues in Europe, but put yourself in the shoes of a young American star. A move to Europe has three possible outcomes for young players just starting their career: you waste your talent sitting on the bench, you constantly get traded, or you’re injured due to high standards set by viewers.
As someone who experienced their first live soccer game in 1999, when the L.A Galaxy still played at the Rose Bowl because there were no soccer-specific venues, I can’t stand it when critics like Arsene Wenger, the team manager of London’s Arsenal Football Club, deride the MLS by labeling it as a retirement home for players past their expiration date and where global stars go to get a big payday.
Still, MLS’ lifeline isn’t dependent on European player investments.
Contrary to what critics like Wegener say, there are many examples of American players who started their careers in MLS and are now flourishing abroad, such as Omar Gonzalez, who just scored his first goal for C.F. Pachuca a week ago. Gonzalez spent his early career playing for the L.A. Galaxy from 2009 to 2015, winning two MLS Cups.
In order to erase the notion that the MLS is nothing more than a retirement league, U.S. soccer must invest more in youth programs and keep talented youth playing on American soil.