New Markets Are Challenging MLS Appeal For Europe’s Name Players

In the beginning, MLS was a little league that merited little notice internationally.  On occasion an all star went overseas and their previous career was noted by pundits, but MLS itself was paid little heed by the Sky Sports of the world.  For better or for worse, this changed with the Beckham Experiment when the eyes of world soccer were turned to our league to see just how competitive it could be.  And while MLS is still tipped occasionally as a minor league mainly by a few ignorant journalists, it has been successful in attracting enough foreign talent that papers like The Guardian have at least online reporters covering the MLS beat.  I attribute this to MLS’s ability to attract foreign veterans to come over and play, mainly because of the flexibility the designated player rule allows but also because of the success of Beckham and Thierry Henry.  For the past five years, MLS has been the perfect non-European landing spot for these kind of stars.  If top-flight European teams were not interested in your services, MLS was a place to go to continue to receive the attention, salary, and playing time you think you deserve.  MLS was competing for Robbie Keane with second-tier teams in major European leagues and small Euro leagues, and it seemed like these were the kinds of battles the league would keep winning.  Any time an older star was thinking about a change of scenery, MLS would be the ideal destination.

But just as MLS was establishing itself as a recognizable league, the competition for stars increased and now MLS has to decide how dedicated it is to attracting big-name but older superstars.  The first competitor was the Middle East, as businessmen flush with oil money looked to attract stars to build up their country’s leagues.  Specifically, the United Arab Emirates began to flash money at former World Cup stars to attract some attention to the UAE Pro-League.  Despite attracting Diego Maradona as manager and a few other borderline name players, the exodus of talent to UAE and other Middle Eastern countries has not happened.  However, China and now Australia have replaced the Middle East as MLS competitors with some massive signings and, as opposed to the UAE forays into international waters, these two could pose more danger to the MLS business model.

China sent waves through the international soccer community this summer when UEFA Champions League Finals hero Didier Drogba announced he would play for Shanghai Shenhua, a fairly successful team in the Chinese Super League.  Prior to his signing, teammate and long-time rumored MLS target Nicolas Anelka was the star signing for the league.  Anelka’s move was even more surprising considering his brother was the manager of former USSF team A.C. St. Louis and had been rumored to be positive on bringing his brother over for a while.  With a successful Olympic games bringing positive attention to the sport and China becoming a global superpower, the same economic interests that brought Beckham to the U.S. are now capable of luring marketable players to China.  Italy moving its domestic cup final to China is a sign of the economic power of the country in the game, although internal troubles could quickly derail any momentum the league is building.

Now Australia has joined the ranks of countries trying to push its soccer league into international consciousness.  Long a country where soccer ranked well behind other national sports (sound familiar?), the Hyundai A-League has suffered through poor attendance and management controversies.  However, with new clubs springing up and a strong bid by Australia for the 2022 World Cup, the league looks dedicated to stabilizing and expanding.  The biggest sign of this is Sydney FC’s signing this morning of Italian star Alessandro Del Piero.  The international soccer star signed a six-month contract worth $2 million and immediately became the headliner for the little league.  While this is not the first time the Sky Blues have signed a big-name (they did ink Dwight Yorke a few years back), according to the rumors mill they did beat out the Greek league, Scotland’s Celtic, and even potentially Liverpool for the Azzurri talisman’s signature.  Del Piero is the most recent “marquee player” signing, a rule in the A-League that allows clubs to sign players outside of the restrictive salary cap (sound familiar?) to attract high-profile names.

What does all this mean for MLS? We can argue over whether older European stars coming to the U.S. has been a positive for the domestic game, but in terms of attention and coverage from the international soccer community the answer is yes.  While MLS has always had to compete with leagues in South America and lower-level European leagues, new moneyed clubs in China and Australia offer players a chance to go into other major media markets to make big money for their declining skills.  For MLS, a league that has financially benefited from attracting some big names, this competition may force a strategic decision from the league offices.  Should they continue to spend money and compete with the A-League and Chinese Super League for the brightest (but fading) stars? Or should MLS turn its attention to developing younger players who can bring the league prestige for its play and promising talent?  Or can the league have both? I suspect not, thus prompting a critical decision point for the league offices.

9 Responses to New Markets Are Challenging MLS Appeal For Europe’s Name Players

  1. Alan says:

    I think that they can have both. The obvious focus should be to
    develop younger players, but I would argue that bringing in older
    stars will help in that development. It is FAR from the only thing
    of course, but it sure doesn’t hurt to have an older star or 2 on
    any one team. You could argue that it takes attention away from
    other players because the media only wants to focus on Beckham, but
    so what? When I go to a game, fans around me know all about the
    players on their team. They know how they play, what their
    strengths and weaknesses are, etc. Native MLS players have been
    starting to shine through to the media gradually, and I suspect
    will continue to do so. Yes, I think that everyone can win here.

  2. buckyball says:

    To this casual observer, the Chinese football league seems more
    analogous to our old NASL. Money available for over-the-hill big
    names, but popular interest just inches deep for home grown
    players. But, it is a different era than 1980 for football. China
    doesn’t have an entrenched Big 3 Sports cartel to overcome like the
    USA. The US is happily past the point where soccer is the new
    sports novelty act in town. Culturally and geographically, the US
    is an easier leap for good Euro players than Asia or Oceania. That
    means our MLS can attract some of the good late-career talent. I
    agree that we’re really able to have it both ways in the States -
    as long as the MLS reality-checks the salary cap on a regular

  3. Charles says:

    There are a glut of these foreign “DP” players, as I predicted,
    that are willing to come over now that the money is there. Does
    Gudjohnsen want to play for teams that get crushed by Barca now ?
    No. No one does, but most don’t have a choice, money talks. They
    are a dime a dozen to me………… Obviously when Wilhelmsson
    signs with LA, it is news……But really the news is who is
    signing, not that they someone is signing, a dime a
    league should focus on the best players UNDER a salary cap. One, it
    keeps the league competitive. Article by McCarty from that
    talks about the competitiveness being crushed
    today……………………Two, it gets the league where it needs
    to be. Signing Beckham and co, gets the casual fan in. Not what you
    want. Seattle is doing so well now, 30 years later, because unlike
    NY 30 year ago, they didn’t sign Pele and others. The fans were
    fans of the Sounders, meanwhile NY has been waiting for Messi to
    come and play for the Cosmos for 16 years now………Three, they
    are very good players coming out of college and more and better on
    the way.

    • Alan says:

      I think that some of the casual fans that came for Beckham and
      Henry have stayed. The ones that haven’t never really were going to
      stay and never will. The ones that did have been treated to a great
      time going to see games live.

      • Charles says:

        Maybe you are right, who really knows. Attendance is certainly up
        since Beckham, but much of that is Seattle. The question isn’t what
        happened in the past, it is what will happen. I guess this is a bad
        time to say this with LA on 11 losses and NY surviving on timely
        offense only, but if parity leaves so do fans of the losing teams,
        if no hit to parity for the lesser markets, who would be against it
        ?……………………….I think the Sounders are going to sign
        Gudjohnsen next week. He is playing in a reserve game Sunday.

  4. Brian says:

    There is NO way the A-League > MLS. The A-League is like
    watching England’s League One or the lower Championship team. It’s
    entirely about strength and physicality. At least MLS tries to play
    the ball on the ground and has some players that show actual skill
    (mostly foreigners). MLS is definitely more watchable.

    • Joe2 says:

      I agree…The A-League is bad. What I think a lot comes down to is
      living situation, lets be honest Sydney is a great place to live if
      your retiring soon and also I think MLS wants to get away from
      being a retirement league and there may not have been a lot of
      interest in DP.

    • Charles says:

      At least MLS does that, inspite of the Americans. Thank God for the
      foreigners. Phew.

  5. Jim Randald says:

    Revolution Defeat Crew 2-0

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