In recent weeks we’ve seen some prominent examples of what can go wrong when MLS tries to build a brand around aging European stars at the tail end of their careers.
Roughly a year ago Steven Gerrard announced he was leaving Liverpool after 28 years with the club (if you count his academy years). Within a week the LA Galaxy announced they had signed him to an 18 month contract to start in the summer, following the end of the Premier League season. In later months Gerrard said that while he still had a little gas in the tank as a player, it had become increasingly clear that his playing career at Liverpool was winding down.
No one was sure how long Gerrard’s stay in SoCal would be, though it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think Galaxy officials and fans hoped to get a few years out of the former England international, something akin to Thierry Henry’s run with the New York Red Bulls or even a more extended tenure like his once-again teammate Robbie Keane. It’s looking more and more like that’s not going to happen.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Gerrard said that 2016 is likely the end of the line for him. “I’m not 100% sure but I think it will probably be my last year as a player.”
This isn’t especially surprising given some recent comments from Gerrard. Back in November the 35 year old said that playing in MLS was much more difficult than he had anticipated. “Playing at altitude, playing in humidity, they are the hurdles that I’ve had to face over the last three months that I wasn’t aware of. Every away game’s got a different challenge.”
Gerrard has spent the past two months following the end of the 2015 MLS season back home in England, where he appeared as a pundit for BT Sport’s coverage of the Champions League. He’s also been spending time at Melwood, participating in team training to maintain his fitness while getting better acquainted with Jürgen Klopp. He’s currently off in Australia where he will captain a Liverpool Legends team against an Australian Legends XI in Sydney on Thursday.
The soft return to Liverpool in the MLS offseason is likely paving the way to return to the club in a coaching capacity— something he gladly would’ve stayed at the club for last year had he received a firm offer. As it stands, there’s nothing concrete on the table but both he and the club are feeling each other out.
“I have had a chat with Klopp. I haven’t had an offer as such, but the club have let me know they are keen for me to come back but there hasn’t been a conversation where they have said: ‘We want you to do this, we want you to do that.’ [...] Having trained for a couple of weeks, I’m excited, upbeat and positive. I was a big fan of Klopp before he came but having been around him and seeing how he is with individual players and tactics you can get excited. As a fan and ex-player I loved the experience. I was a bit wary about whether to do it or not because I didn’t want to take any attention away from players or the newness of Klopp. But I’m delighted I did. I felt I was new and young.”
All this comes on the heels of another high-profile and much more imminent departure of a big name from MLS. After only playing half a season with the Montreal Impact, Chelsea legend Didier Drogba is already looking for the exits and angling for a return to Stamford Bridge as either a player, a coach, or both. Drogba is under contract until at least the end of the 2016 season but, given the resigned “it’s out of our hands” comments from the club when the story broke, it seems that signed contracts don’t amount to much when a player wants to leave and has the leverage to make it happen.
All of this of course is pretty embarrassing for a league that’s building its brand around European stars looking to make a big splash in an emerging soccer market. While the signing of Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto was an undeniable coup, and the repatriation of prominent USMNT stars like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley helped keep the league flush with well-known domestic talent, the bread and butter for MLS in the past decade has been luring big names from England and Europe in the sunset years of their playing career. For the most part it’s been a mutually beneficial arrangement; the player gets to squeeze out a few more years on the pitch, they get to collect a decent wage in a league where the checks always clear (which isn’t always a given in other “retirement leagues” around the world), and MLS gets to market itself as the home of some of the biggest names in world football. Yet Gerrard and Drogba threaten to expose what many MLS skeptics have long argued— that the league’s ties with its highest-profile Designated Players represents a one-sided relationship where faded stars grab one last payday and dump their new teams as soon as it becomes inconvenient. That take may not be necessarily true, but it’s a perception that MLS has struggled to overcome ever since David Beckham heard the siren song of AC Milan while still under contract with the Galaxy. The recent rumblings from Gerrard and Drogba certainly aren’t helping.