One of the most fascinating things about MLS, as goofy as it can be, is watching it evolve into a different type of league every few years.
Certainly at its start, and for most of its opening era, there were few who imagined it would become a selling league. It certainly was rarely mentioned, as adorable though kind of ridiculous dreams of becoming one of the world’s biggest league’s still invaded too many minds.
But that’s what’s happened, as more and more players see it as a pretty solid platform to launch themselves into the European marketplace (especially South American players, but especially South American attackers). The fact that MLS exports remain pretty affordable for mid-level European teams in big leagues or teams in lower leagues, at least compared to players from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, has made it suddenly one of the more mined sources of talent around. That probably won’t stop anytime soon.
There is still the perception, more outside the U.S. than in it, that MLS is a retirement league, where the stars of yesterday can cash one more check while selling tickets around the league. When Ronaldo and/or Messi show up (and they very likely will someday soon), that will only boost that idea. That’s always been a touch unfair. David Beckham was 31 when he blasted open this pathway. Thierry Henry was 32. They were hardly in need of a walker to get around the field. But there have been enough guys in their mid or late-30s to support that take if someone wanted to be that bullhorn.
But that hasn’t been the trend of late. Lorenzo Insigne and Xherdan Shaqiri joined up this season barely in their 30s, though for large paychecks to be sure. But they still could be carving out roles with European clubs. Fuck, Insigne was a starter for a Napoli team that was a serious Scudetto contender just last May.
And there’s another type of transfer we’ve seen this season, which signals, possibly, just how much players and their agents see MLS as somewhere to rehabilitate a career that still has many years to run.
We referenced him in The Mourning After today, but Riqui Puig is the shining example. And he clearly is a class above MLS even if he’s only been on the field for a handful of minutes. He can at least look forward to opponents never giving him this amount of time and space again:
This is what happens when a past Barcelona starlet shows up on these shores. And that’s what Puig was, and it was hardly long ago. He’s only 23! Puig was supposed to be sashaying through the field right alongside the likes of Gavi and Pedri in the current Barcelona team and be part of the next La Masia wave that would keep Barca at the top. It never quite worked out that way, as over four seasons Puig only managed 11 starts for the Blaugrana.
Still, there’s no questioning the amount of talent contained within his slight frame, and it’s hard to believe he couldn’t have secured a transfer to a mid-level La Liga team if he so desired. Especially for free as he was when he landed with the Galaxy. If MLS is now seen as a place where players like Puig can rebuild their rep that’s taken a hit or two, that only raises the quality of the league.
He’s not the only one. Federico Bernadeschi came along for the ride from Italy to Toronto next to Insigne. He is only 28, and while maybe not an automatic choice for Juventus the past couple seasons, he still started 16 games last season. Again, it’s hard to imagine that a team in the middle of Serie A wouldn’t have had some interest in giving him a full-time starting role. This is a guy who played for the European Champion Italian squad just last summer, for fuck’s sake! As you might expect, he’s torn MLS apart so far with five goals in just seven games so far as Toronto FC charge toward the playoffs.
These aren’t the only ones either. Cucho Hernández came to Columbus from Watford in England and he’s only 23. Jairo Torres was one of the more exciting prospects in Liga MX for Atlas and decided that being in Chicago would be better for his career (that hasn’t worked out too well yet). It’s definitely a new wave.
Not every team in MLS will take this kind of leap. Some have their system and stick to it religiously. But more and more are opening up. Watching Puig and Bernadeschi and Cucho tear things up, and maybe secure a better move than they would have before coming to MLS, will only intrigue other players frozen out around Europe.
MLS will never run with the top five in Europe, or won’t until all of us are long dead. But they can start to compete with the leagues below that the more talent wants to come here, even for only a season or two to pump up their values. That’s OK, that’s how the soccer world works. It’s not officially a new era yet for MLS, but it’s moving that way.