The MLS has enjoyed an almost meteoric rise over the last five years, with crowd sizes surging to previously unimaginable levels. With the recent successes on the international stage, American soccer’s success has grown in tandem, and is becoming an increasingly popular league amongst European players and fans.
The league is still, however, regarded as something of a last stop before retirement, with players knowing lucrative contracts and a lower standard of play will allow them a couple more years in a top flight, before retirement on a move into coaching beckons.
Before Robbie Keane made his switch to the MLS, the American league’s internationally recognised stars were David Beckham and Landon Donovan, who had plied his trade in Germany, and was the USA’s best player on the international stage.
Keane, the league’s 5th highest transfer of all time, has been nothing short of prolific since moving to the states and is considered to be one of the leagues best players, if not the best. Despite the wealth of legends that now ply their trade in the MLS, Keane’s exceptional scoring record and longevity in the game means he stands above them.
He was awarded the MLS Most Valuable Player Award in 2014, MLS Cup MVP the year later received the MLS Player of the Month award in July 2012 and August 2013.
While he may not have the profile of the likes of Kaka, Beckham, Pirlo and co, he has achieved more in the MLS than many of his more iconic peers.
David Beckham was arguably the catalyst behind the current trend of Premier League, and indeed European greats spending the twilight of their playing careers in the MLS. His signing for LA Galaxy came with a huge media storm on both sides of the Atlantic, and heaped attention onto the league, while his new club saw record season ticket and gate revenues.
Although synonymous with MLS, Beckham’s time there was not always fairytale, and his loan move to Milan caused a ripple of anger amongst some of the LA Galaxy fan-base, who saw him as disinterested and a “part timer”.
However he was an integral member of their team during some of their most successful seasons, regularly contributing both assists and goals.
With the prospect of his own club joining the MLS next season, Beckham’s influence and legacy on the MLS will always be more as an advocate and a figurehead, rather than a player.
For many stars, the MLS is a final shot at glory on the pitch, but for other Premier League players it is a chance to thrive in a different league, and in some ways reinvent themselves.
For Bradley Wright-Phillips this was certainly the case. While highly rated in his youth, his time in the Premier League was often frustrating, and marred by a persistent knee complaint. For many English fans his name would provoke reaction, but in the MLS he has flourished.
With 27 goals in 2014 he claimed the MLS golden boot, and included in the league’s team of the season. Averaging a goal every two games he is one of the league’s most prolific strikers, and has been a key component in the New Work Red Bull’s recent success.
In England Bradley was always overshadowed by his brother Shaun, who enjoyed successful spells at Manchester City and Chelsea, but failed to make a similar impact in the MLS.
Two of the latest Premier League icons to join the ranks of the MLS are Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who were arguably amongst the best midfielders to grace the British game in a decade.
Gerrard’s career at LA Galaxy started well, notching up several assists and two goals alongside former teammate Robbie Keane. Despite this he has hinted at a possible retirement from the game later in the year, due to his struggles with away fixtures. The size of America means an away fixture can be somewhere with a very different climate, and the Liverpool veteran has admitted his difficulties with adapting to this.
Lampard’s time in the MLS got off to an unusual start, following a loan spell at Manchester City and an injury at the start of the current season. Despite this he is a regular starter for the club, and looks likely to enjoy a more extensive career in the MLS than Gerrard.
Thierry Henry’s career was marked by his successes at Arsenal during they heyday, and Barcelona as part of Guardiola’s dream team, however his time in the MLS was far from a quick money spinner before retirement.
In 132 games he scored 51 goals and made 41 assists, in 2012 he was named MLS MVP, in the team of the season and included in the MLS All-Star team. He featured in the All-Star team every year until his retirement.
When he first arrived his flashy style took some getting used to, before eventually going on to win the hearts of the NYRB faithful, and eventually becoming the team’s captain. While his legacy in the USA might not be quite to the level of Robbie Keane, he is up there with him and David Beckham as the most celebrated former Premier League imports.
Drogba could not have enjoyed a better start to his MLS career. In his first game he scored a “perfect hat-trick”, which is a goal with either foot plus a header, notching up 7 goals in total in his first five games.
He was the first MLS player to ever score a hat-trick on his debut, and his sensational first month led him to be named MLS Player of the Month in October 2015.
While recent struggles with injuries had left Montreal fans fearing that he would be forced to reconsider his playing career, but the Ivorian will not be hanging up his boots just yet, much to their collective delight.
While the MLS may not be up to the standard of Europe’s premier leagues, the level of competition is high, and ever increasing as clubs attract better players, and facilities improve. The success of former Premier League players not only provides a great spectacle for fans, but increases it’s wider appeal, and of course gives the rest of us the chance to watch our favourite players do what they do best.