Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas has had a rough go of it these past few years. The goalkeeper has seen his previously blemish-free legacy tarnished by the hand of a vindictive manager, lost a considerable amount of support from a fanbase that once idolized him, suffered a cratering of confidence, and now looks likely to be replaced at both club and country by the younger and better David De Gea. This is a guy who could use a break.
Naturally, when a formerly great player starts to sense his career's mortality, his thoughts turn towards wringing out all the money and playing time out of what's left in his boots and, in this case, gloves. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Casillas says he would one day like to play in one of the world's premier semi-retirement destinations, MLS.
As we've seen over the years, there is no shortage of Europeans willing to bring their faded abilities over to MLS for profit. In that sense, this is no surprise. Sure, some guys have a little more pride about them and their legacies, but it's no shock that a top player would like to spend a few more years out on the pitch and be handsomely rewarded for it.
What we aren't buying for a second, though, is the WSJ's depiction of this tried-and-true strategy as evidence of some new dawn for American soccer. Whereas MLS was once known as the nightcap of washed-up players' careers, the WSJ seems to be telling us it is now where...slightly less washed-up players enjoy slightly longer victory laps in the American top flight?
First it was Frank Lampard . Then England captain Steven Gerrard decided to cross the pond. Now, Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas is making noises about joining the wave of European stars departing for Major League Soccer.
Casillas's interest in MLS illustrates the latest evolution of the U.S.'s top soccer league. After nearly going bust a dozen years ago, MLS is becoming something more than just a pre-retirement destination for once-great internationals.
Uh, we're still talking about Casillas here, right? The 33-year-old who's been slowly nudged towards the exit door at Real for a couple years now? And he's among the growing "trend" with guys like Gerrard and Lampard? You know, old guys?
It continues in this vein:
As MLS clubs kicked off their training camps over the weekend, there is a sense of a shift in an organization that not long ago was viewed abroad as a soft landing spot for a worn-out veteran. MLS offered a well-paid chance to live mostly anonymously in a country that didn't bother international soccer stars, and none of the lifestyle hassles of other lucrative, last-stop destinations, such as the Middle East or China.
And Casillas changes this notion...how? The whole article reads not only like MLS-commissioned propaganda, but as if it were written about the Jozy Altidore and Mix Diskerud transfers rather than Casillas's situation. (And even then the ideas wouldn't be apt, as those guys only came here after it was clear they couldn't hack it at the upper levels of European play.)
Now MLS is on the upswing, aided by quality stadiums and training facilities, plus the opportunity for stars who have played with one club nearly their entire careers to keep competing without compromising their loyalty to their European side.
MLS also has a collection of deep-pocketed owners who are willing to pay $5 million salaries to the most sought-after players. That is due in part to a new, eight-year, $720 million national television contract with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision Deportes and expansion fees in New York, Atlanta and Orlando that have pumped more than $150 million into the league.
Ah, there, we finally get to the truth of the matter. What's changed, if anything, is MLS's ability to sway more of the same kind of famous old guy, rather than any fundamental change in the type of player the league attracts. It's a matter of quantity, not quality. The league is still throwing sackfuls of cash to bring in past-their-prime dudes to whip up on the minimum-salary filler that makes up the majority of rosters; and it's clearly got more sackfuls to throw.
These are all splashy, presumably profitable moves for MLS, but they don't offer much in the way of the systemic changes necessary to really improve the quality of soccer produced and displayed in America. We know this, Jürgen Klinsmann knows this, and the league knows this. The WSJ's attempt to portray things otherwise doesn't hold up.
Like, just look at this shit. The WSJ wants us to believe players like Casillas and Gerrard are coming because of their respect for the growing quality of MLS. But then they quote what the players actually say and it belies the whole thing:
Players seem to feel that being a one-club player is compatible with playing for two clubs in your career, as long as the second club is far enough removed from first one's orbit. MLS is providing that chance.
The way Casillas sees it, American clubs all have one appealing trait in common: "They are unlikely to be in direct competition with Real Madrid."
Hopefully, the players' union sees stories like this in the news every day and salivates over the concessions they could extract from a league that's able to set millions on fire for depleted talent with questionable box office appeal while crying poor at the bargaining table and declaring that free agency is unworkable. And if the owners balk? No MLS for a while.
We'll see if the players who actually need their MLS careers sit idly by while the vacationers reap the benefits, or if they start demanding the league actually makes steps towards becoming the one you read about in the papers.