Is the MLS cheapening itself with foreign imports?

David Beckham, LA GalaxyWith the January transfer window now firmly in the sights of those who are looking to strengthen their squads for an assault on their respective targets this season, for some players in Europe, it also represents a good chance to plot their escape to pastures new. And in recent times, one of the more popular getaways for a smattering of the continent’s more matured talent, has been a trip to the United States.

Indeed, while Major League Soccer’s rise in prominence within recent years can be attributed to a whole array of varying factors, it’s been helped in no small part by a smattering of high-profile faces that originate a little more closer to home.

But where as David Beckham’s five-year stint in the MLS undoubtedly did much to boost the profile of the sport within North America, bringing in both attention from the mainstream media and lucrative financial rewards, his influence upon boosting what fans have actually seen on the field, is slightly more difficult to quantify.

Yet although Beckham himself may have recently called time upon his LA Galaxy career, don’t think for five minutes that the smattering of European talent is on the wane. If anything, it’s never been bigger.

A trip to see Montreal Impact play at the Saputo Stadium gives fans a chance to see former Italian defensive legend Alessandro Nesta ply his trade, alongside veteran ex-Bologna striker Marco Di Vaio and former Roma defender Matteo Ferrari.

Ex-PSV favourite Danny Koevermans is also playing in Canada with Toronto FC, where you’ll also be able to find one Torsten Frings running the midfield. The list continues, with the likes of Kris Boyd, Andy O’Brien, Lee Young-Pyo and Kenny Miller all representing familiar faces within English football.

Of course, while it’s hard to really place someone like ex-Bolton defender O’Brien in the same postcode as Alessandro Nesta or compare Kenny Miller with the New York Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry, the point here is that they’re all players to have played at the highest level in terms of Europe’s domestic leagues. But irrespective of their own personal fortunes since moving to the MLS, what effect has this really had upon the league itself?

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There is something of a very naïve school of thought that seems to suggest the mere presence of some of Europe’s more talented, yet ultimately ageing stars, is boosting the quality of the MLS. On a very superficial basis, that’s not entirely without its merits. Regardless of the fact that most of Europe’s exports into the MLS are reaching the end of their career, most of them can certainly still play to a high standard.

While the team might not have necessarily clicked, Henry’s individual performances for the New York Red Bull’s haven’t been too shoddy at all and despite a relatively average start, for all his commercial clout, David Beckham continued to churn out some great games for LA Galaxy. And before we go about having a pop at the influx of foreign talent within the American game, it’s worth noting what that same scenario has done for our very own Premier League.

The common flaw here is of course that MLS teams haven’t signed a Nesta or a Henry in their prime, but that might not necessarily even be the biggest issue.

Besides cultivating a frenzy of media activity when he signed for LA Galaxy in 2007, Beckham’s arrival also gave birth to the ‘Designated Player Rule’, one more commonly known as the ‘Beckham Rule’. In it’s most basic guise, the rule gave clubs the opportunity to sign players that would be considered outside of the teams’ salary cap. In other words, it opened the floodgates for clubs to purchase better quality and bigger box office foreign talent.

And since 2007, we’ve seen a total of 53 designated player contracts in the MLS, with all but three of them going towards foreign talent. Yet out of the majority of those contracts that have been handed out, very few have played in the league for longer than two years. Out of the 26 designated players that have since moved on to pastures new or retired, only 11 of them played more than a solitary year in the United States.

In terms of the current crop of designated players, only five of the 28 contracts in the league were signed before 2011. For them, it may be too early to tell, but it’s difficult to see the trend bucking too much in 2013.

Because while the outsider – and perhaps more cynically, one or two of the players– view the MLS as some sort of luxury retirement home, the fact is that there is a fleeting, enthusiastic and competitive league that is looking to continue its development and evolve onto the next level.

Regardless of their age, form, ability or otherwise, until a European export sticks around for longer than 18 months, it’s difficult to see how any are going to be able to bring much in the way of success for their sides or anything resembling a lasting legacy. No matter what the quality of your team or whereabouts in the world you play, building success and evolving as a unit takes time.

And perhaps the proof of this is in the pudding. While many of the foreign exports that have gone on to ply their trade in the MLS have enjoyed purple patches and sprinklings of magic, who has really left much in the way of a legacy on the field, as opposed to simply away from it?

David Beckham left the LA Galaxy amongst a shower of confetti and a smattering of champagne after winning his second MLS Cup. It took him four years to win his first one. Building success and developing a legacy takes a lot longer than a 12-month stint boosted by a hefty pay packet.

The MLS is an ever improving division but for all the media glare and lucrative sponsorships the foreign pros may be brining in, they should take little credit for the development that fans are witnessing on the field of play.


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