Anyone who has ever had a disparaging nickname knows how hard it can be to shake. For MLS, it’s the label of being a retirement league. That phrase has burrowed deep under the skin of the league and its supporters, forcing new signing who fit that stereotype to declare their intentions to actually try upon arrival.
Perhaps because of this, Americans have developed a compulsion for rushing to criticize aged stars from other lands who don’t immediately perform well once they join the league. As if condemning a well known player will magically rid MLS of the irrelevant yet somehow still hurtful “retirement league” tag or unquestionably prove that the level of play in the U.S. surpasses the expectations of its doubters.
The disproportionately large sums of money spent on Designated Players (those who are paid outside the severely limiting constraints of the MLS salary cap) naturally makes them targets for increased scrutiny, greater expectations, and jealousy from other MLS players. It’s all very much understandable, but misjudged.
Amongst more recent Designated Player signings, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo have all been criticized for their performance on the pitch (or lack thereof), given the big money they all pull from the league. But to call any of them terrible signings ignores a major part of why they commanded such large contracts in the first place.
Despite their unremarkable form, all three of those players were in the top 10 in MLS jerseys sold last year. After Gerrard and Lampard signed, Sky Sports agreed to a four-year UK broadcast deal that MLS called “groundbreaking” (impressive for a league that can’t even get significant TV ratings in the country where most of its teams play). And Pirlo draws millions of views just for standing still.
All three were named amongst the 10 most overrated players in MLS by their peers, but that doesn’t really matter. Because of the structure of the league and the emphasis on parity, results on the pitch aren’t terribly important in MLS. No MLS club can grow to become an international power like Real Madrid or Leicester City, or even spend what’s necessary to compete with Mexican clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League. Being good in MLS only means being good within MLS.
Furthermore, I doubt there are many casual fans who first took notice of the league because of David Beckham that could tell you how many MLS Cups he won (let alone Supporters’ Shields) or goals he scored for the Galaxy. His mere affiliation with the league was enough to help it grow. And given the league’s insatiable hunger for more teams (and the massive expansion fees they pony up), it seems growth and expansion are definitely more of a priority than quality of play right now, as it’s still looking to secure its future after just 20 seasons of play.
MLS mostly exists inside a bubble of its own creation, so pulling in players that individually have more fans than the league does as a whole is a way to grow its insular base. Like it or not, foreign stars serve a useful purpose to MLS even if they don’t for the club they play for (or don’t play for). In truth, a terrible signing for MLS is a guy who makes one appearance, scores an own goal, AND can’t even convince his mother to buy a ticket to a game. But no one cares about that guy. Which is precisely my point.
It’s better to be known as a retirement league than to not be known at all.