by Conor McStay

MLS presents a paradox as British interest in the league only peaks when no football is being played, and instead the major coverage of the league comes in January with the loans in the MLS off-season.  This month has seen the return of Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane to the Premier League as well as the eventual resolving of the Beckham “will-he-won’t he?” to PSG saga. Aside from this, Sky Sports News coverage barely extended beyond replaying THAT Eric Hassli goal and brief highlights of the MLS final, and as a result the surface of the league was barely scratched.  More worryingly, these high-profile loans paint the picture of MLS as a footballing graveyard reminiscent of a more moderate version of the 1970s NASL experiment (admittedly the reforming of the New York Cosmos and a campaign to become a franchise brings a spark of nostalgia) and that Premier League clubs are saviours for offering salvation to these players for a few months. While I won’t deny that MLS still makes a profitable option to ageing footballers, with Del Piero and David Trezeguet being the latest targets being linked with short term spells, the increasingly talented youth emerging from American teams and the varying successes of the “David Beckham Experiment” mean that the reliance on ageing superstars is an factor overplayed by many sceptics of the league.

The MLS off-season saw two of the league’s hottest properties, Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea, move to Europe to train with Stuttgart, Liverpool (Agudelo) and Arsenal (Shea) respectively. While no bids followed from any of these teams, the European interest in the players has been aroused, and is a sign of the quality of player emerging from the MLS pool. FC Dallas have since revealed that an offer from Dynamo Kiev had been made for Shea in the region of $10 million at the end of the season, but it was swiftly rejected. For those who haven’t seen Brek Shea play, he plays in a similar way to Bolton’s Stuart Holden, with his breakout season last year seeing him score 11 goals and assist 6 more in 44 games (culminating in an MLS All-Star award and Young Soccer Player of the Year), with this form leading to him starting every one of Jürgen Klinsmann’s games as USA coach, which will only lead to an increase in his reputation in Europe.

As the league has begun to expand and mature, the coverage of the sport has moved from wild hyperbole to a more reserved analysis.

As for Agudelo, his emergence from the New York Red Bull Academy has seen comparisons to Jozy Altidore, however the two play quite differently, with Agudelo replacing the physical strength of Altidore with skill, as typified by his goal against DC United in a 4-0 win. While his record of 6 goals in 29 appearances may not grab the headlines, he spent a large part of the season as the 3rd choice striker behind Henry and Rodgers. When he did play, it was often out wide. Instead, he has flourished for the National team, with two goals in his first two games. At the time of writing rumours are emerging of New York setting an asking price of $2.9 million following the arrival of Kenny Cooper and if this is the case, this deal would be a steal for not only the potential of Agudelo, but also the marketing opportunities that would surely follow.

Shea and Agudelo do not represent one-offs for the league, with the new crop of players beginning to emerge. These two players are not a one off, with Tim Ream’s move to Bolton (for a fee that could pay a whole MLS teams salary) and Kyle Beckerman’s trial with Kaiserslautern being two of the biggest names to move to Europe, with over ten players either trialling or moving to Europe either on loan or permanently. More crucially, it seems increasingly unlikely that any player will suffer from the curse of the media hype that engulfed the career of Freddy Adu, who is still young enough to take part in the Olympic Games. The proclamations that he would eclipse Pele were silenced quickly after a series of injuries and loan spells which took in a number of clubs that would impress even Anelka or Robbie Keane. As the league has begun to expand and mature, the coverage of the sport has moved from wild hyperbole to a more reserved analysis, with the coverage moving to NBC next season meaning that MLS will receive even greater publicity and increased match analysis, instead of ESPN’s borderline comical analysis and a coverage bias that would put the Sky Sports-Manchester United love-in to shame (Last year 3 teams were shown 19 times in the normal league season).

Last year, LA Galaxy became the first team to be crowned champions with 3 Designated Players.

Last year, LA Galaxy became the first team to be crowned champions with 3 Designated Players. In simple terms, 3 players who are above the wage cap of the league, with each team having 2 Designated Player slots with a third available for purchase following a one-off payment of $335,000 to the league. On the night, all three combined (Beckham wins a header to find Keane, who slips a ball into Landon Donovan) for the only goal to beat Houston Dynamo, who had no designated players, 1-0. While this presented an argument for the success of ageing superstars in the league, it is often forgotten that LA Galaxy have been erratic in the seasons leading up to 2011, and the season of New York Red Bulls offers a stark contrast. Like LA Galaxy, New York had 2 Designated Players but they largely underwhelmed as they fell short of pre-season expectations, despite Henry and Marquez having a pay packet of over $10 million between them. Rafael Marquez was a particular disappointment and managed to endear himself to the fans after this gem of a quote in September following a 3-1 loss to Salt Lake:

“I’m focusing on really performance at my highest level. That doesn’t mean that the whole backline can perform at that same level, so that’s a problem…I think this is a team game and unfortunately there isn’t an equal level between my teammates and I.”

With finding the Designated Players who can be a good balance between reputation (and is usually accompanied by a high wage) and ability has been a challenge, the rule has been changed to facilitate for Designated spots being used for youth players. From this year players under 23 count for only $200,000 against the cap, while players under the age of 20 have a $150,000 cap hit, regardless of how much they are paid. As a result of this, the perceived ‘smaller clubs’ such as Portland Timbers have been able to attract youth internationals from South America into the squad, with the signing of Colombia Under 20 player Jose Valencia and Hanyer Mosquera, also from Colombia. These types of players not only represent a boost in the quality of play in the team, but also lead to the potential of a healthy profit for a player if European interest ever arrives, something which is arguably lacking in the signing of an ageing player.

In summary, through small changes which will, for the most part go un-noticed, the MLS will eventually shed the reputation of a retirement home for footballing legends. Granted, it may not be instant, it may even be so far in the distance that the league is graced by a 34 year old Theo Walcott as the next attempt of a team to perfect the “Beckham Experiment” (although a player whose only ability is pace without pace is hardly a restless thought). I do, however, have no doubt that as the game increases its reputation in America and abroad, it will be as much down to the talents of home grown Americans rather than someone with a belly that fills a shirt while at the same time filling their bank account.