The United States’ top professional league has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the last few years. More than ever before, European players are moving across the pond, attracted by the quality of life, the exceptional standard of facilities and the support of the fans who have made the MLS the sixth-most attended league in world football.
Republic of Ireland international Robbie Keane is one player that has thrived in America. He speaks highly of the MLS: “Players I’ve played with are calling me up now from England and Spain and are really, really desperate to come over here because they can see how much the league has grown.”
England legends Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard both recently left the MLS. The midfield duo headed to America for a final swansong before ending their respective careers, but rather than finding a so-called football retirement home, they were greeted by a tough, professional and highly competitive league full of talent.
The MLS has shaken off its retirement home image
Five years ago, the MLS was an ideal destination for top veteran players to earn an inflated paycheck before hanging up their boots. It is undeniable that big name footballers help to boost the league’s profile, but so do competitive, entertaining games that MLS fans enjoy.
The likes of Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger have been linked with moves to the US recently. Based on recent examples of high-profile superstars coming to the end of their careers, they are likely to struggle in the quick-paced MLS. Neither Lampard nor Gerrard, two world-class footballers, have taken the league by storm.
However, the superstars have made a huge contribution to the league, even if it hasn’t always been on the pitch. Their presence has led to double digit growth across a variety of metrics, including local sponsorship, season tickets and attendance. This in turn has helped the league apply the funding that has turned the MLS into a serious league.
Young players are taking up football scholarships in the USA
The improving standards of the MLS is attracting top English youth talent, with many youngsters heading to the States to pursue their career and improve the standard of American football further.
Although the MLS has the money to attract big names, the league has wage caps, limiting the number of stars they can attract from Europe. Gary Stevenson, President and Managing Director of MLS, told Forbes that young players are now the league’s focus, aiming to strengthen academies and develop local players through football scholarships. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that MLS spent $40 million on youth development.
In the United States, young players are able to obtain football scholarships while at university. Not only does give talented footballers the opportunity to nurture their skills with world class coaching and facilities, it also offers a potential avenue into the professional game.
Students simultaneously study for a university degree, meaning there is a safety blanket for those that don’t quite make it professionally. Sports scholarship agency Future Elite Sports state that young Brits are attracted to US football scholarships as they receive a financial package that goes towards tuition fees, accommodation and other maintenance costs. This way, young footballers are given a sustained platform to showcase their talent, with the aim of being signed up by one of America’s top football clubs.
Many British players go through the US football scholarship system after being released by their clubs in England. Perhaps the most successful example is that of Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, who is now far more famous in the United States than he is in the UK.
Speaking of his move, Dwyer told The Telegraph that the scholarship system is extremely different to grassroots football in the UK, but smart English people are realising it’s something they want to be part of.
China has become the new lucrative retirement home for veteran footballers
Former Chelsea midfielder Ramires in action for China’s Jiangsu FC.
With more young players opting for the MLS, improving the standard of football as they do so, the MLS is no longer the easy ride for veteran footballers as it once was. As a result, the big names are increasingly looking to less competitive but more lucrative leagues.
Take China, for example, which is currently undergoing its own football revolution. Here, massive wages are partly financed by the government. Graziano Pellè’s move to Chinese club Shandong Luneng from Southampton in 2016 made headlines as he became one of the best paid footballers in the world, earning an astronomical £260,000-a-week.
Pelle is certainly a talented footballer, but his ability is eclipsed by some of the superstars earning far less than him in Europe. However, the massive wages on offer in China make it an attractive place to play, despite the fact that the league is not of a high standard. Other famous players such as Jackson Martínez, Ramires and Demba Ba have all headed to China for one big final payday.