While on Twitter a few weeks ago, a topic regarding the status of Major League Soccer, compared to other professional leagues around the world, as a ‘retirement league’ or lower-level league sparked a heated debate that I could not stop thinking about.
New England Revolution great and current ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman was at the center of this debate, which began when Alessandro Nesta spoke about his reasons for leaving AC Milan at the end of the season.
“I am no longer in good enough shape to cope with the rhythms of Serie A. I would like to keep playing and enjoy myself,” reasoned Nesta, which was tweeted by Paolo Bandini, a writer/broadcaster covering Serie A.
Many people were quick to state that the MLS could be a possible destination for Nesta, describing MLS as the ‘last stop’ on a player’s road to retirement.
Twellman was quick to defend the reputation of MLS, stating the physicality and logistics of the league as just a few reasons why it should not be considered a ‘retirement league’.
Plenty of users responded with their own thoughts and ideas on this subject, as I will try to do myself while best explaining my train of thought and reasoning behind it.
One of the unique aspects of MLS is the diverse playing environments and conditions the players have to endure. You can play in 20 degree weather with snow and hail in New England, travel to Houston for a 110 degree scorcher, then make your way to the home of the Colorado Rapids and face the altitude challenges it presents.
Many designated players who come to MLS are not accustomed to the travel and drastic climate changes this league offers.
This season, there are over 20 designated players in the league. Many of the players have not been appearing regularly on the pitch due to injuries (Frings in Toronto, Rosales in Seattle, Ferreira in Dallas), while others just are not producing for their clubs, see: Rafa Marquez of the Red Bulls.
Many designated players have an adjustment period, with some lasting longer then others. Both Beckham and Henry struggled to find their legs and fitness when first coming to America. They have since adjusted, with Becks helping his Galaxy club win the MLS Cup last season and Henry off to a torrid scoring pace this season before a hamstring injury sidelined him.
While the overall skill level and play throughout the league may not match up with other top-flight leagues around the world, it is an insult to MLS and its players to consider the league a “last stop” in the road to retirement.
Another major difference between MLS and other leagues is that MLS operates under a single-entity structure, which means that all 19 clubs are owned by the league.
There are regulated salaries and structures that each club must follow when signing players and staff. For example, each club is allowed a maximum of three designated players. The salaries of each player are payed by the league. This helps bring stability and financial control to the league, and has allowed the league to slowly and steadily grow over the past 17 seasons.
While this does bring parity among the clubs and a ‘level’ playing field, it does hurt the chances of clubs signing prized free agents to large contracts.
Look at some of the top clubs over in Europe; Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City (just to name a few) are historically always in the hunt to land the biggest summer signings. They are a few of the most valuable clubs in the world and have owners willing to spend whatever it takes to produce a winning formula on the pitch.
MLS clubs have no chance in competing with the offers these clubs make to the top footballers around the world.
Major League Soccer has found a formula that is working for them, resulting in a financially healthy and stable league. The league has seen a steady growth across the board, with more and more ‘soccer specific’ stadiums being built across the country to serve as the home fields of their clubs.
The league, and the sport of soccer in America, have grown leaps and bounds in the past 17 years. To call MLS a ‘retirement league’ is an insult to that progress and work that has been done by the players, coaches, management, and fans.