Off the Crossbar: The changing identity of the MLS

In the MLS’s 23rd season kickoff this weekend, the Los Angeles Galaxy commemorated its best-known No. 23 and star, David Beckham. The Galaxy unveiled a statue outside their home stadium of the international icon, who moved to the MLS in 2007 at the age of 32 in a benchmark moment for the budding league. Beckham was the first of many famous players to “retire” into the MLS at the end of their bountiful careers. 

Celebrating the contribution of an aging superstar is an appropriate metaphor for the ‘retirement league’ image of MLS. Beckham’s commitment to LA Galaxy was never clear — he went off to play for AC Milan twice, missing the start of two MLS seasons. It also overlooks the contribution of other Galaxy stars like the American soccer legend Landon Donovan, the league’s all-time leading goalscorer.

To be fair, Beckham did a lot for the MLS. The Galaxy won back-to-back championships to end his stay; he gave the league an unparalleled level of publicity and his arrival paved the way for stars like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, other aged superstars who entered the American fray at the twilight of their careers.

But as these players enter the moratorium and leave only statues behind them, the MLS may be entering a renaissance. Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron joined Atlanta United for its inaugural MLS season in 2017 when he was just 23. Almiron and Atlanta took the league by storm with their exciting, attacking style of play which culminated in an MLS title last year.

In a moment of pride for the MLS, English club Newcastle United paid a club-record fee of over $20 million in January to pry Almiron from Atlanta. Now he has the chance to showcase his talents in arguably the most competitive league in the world. If Almiron proves his worth, European clubs will open their eyes to more MLS talent.

Other teams should learn from Atlanta’s strategy of using their three designated player spots to recruit young South American players, not aged superstars. The MLS is slowly morphing into a selling league, the role almost every other league in the world plays outside of Europe’s top five leagues. Instead of losing money on short-term, glittering investments like Pirlo and Gerrard, MLS teams are moving to more profitable team-building schemes. The money Atlanta received from selling Almiron will now be used to spend on other young players, perpetuating the cycle.

There have been other sporadic successes in the MLS. German giants Bayern Munich signed 18-year-old Alphonso Davies from the Vancouver Whitecaps in January, while 16-year-old Efrain Alvarez, who notched an assist in the Galaxy’s first game, has European clubs salivating for the Mexican-American international. The better these players perform abroad, the better the MLS looks in the eyes of the rest of the world.

In order to take the next step as a league, the MLS needs to shift its focus away from older, aging players and prove itself as a worthy breeding ground for young talent. Only then can it start attracting the best young players that the Americas have to offer.