With Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard soon to join the likes of Kaka and Robbie Keane in the MLS, James Cox asks whether or not their presence stateside could see the MLS emerge as a future soccer powerhouse.
The conclusion of this year’s Premier League marks the end of an era for English football. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are two household names in the game and like Ryan Giggs’ retirement, their absence will take a lot of getting used to.
Whether you loved them or loathed them, it's undeniable that Gerrard and Lampard have both become Premier League legends. Now both players are heading stateside, a place where 'soccer' divides opinion.
To some it’s a glorified retirement home for the greats, whilst others view it as a future stronghold of world football crying out for the likes of Gerrard and Lampard to help it reach its footballing potential by raising both the standard and profile of the game there. Which is closer to the truth?
One obvious obstacle to soccer in America (we’ll call it soccer for this article) is the popularity of the national games: baseball, American football and basketball. However, with 13 million Americans currently playing the game, soccer is the third biggest participation sport behind only the latter two.
There is some history to the beautiful game in the U.S. too. As well as hosting the 1994 World Cup, the Major League Soccer's predecessor, the North American Soccer League – founded in 1968 – was graced by a whole host of big names including George Best, Bobby Moore and Pele, whose move to the New York Cosmos in 1975 yielded a similar effect to David Beckham's arrival at LA Galaxy in 2007 by growing the popularity of soccer in the country.
In the 70's and 80's, teams like the Cosmos regularly attracted crowds of 70,000. Subsequently, the popularity of soccer in the states entered a period of decline until 1996 when the Major League Soccer (MLS) was formed.
Since then, membership of the league has grown steadily to 20 teams with further expansion planned. The likes of David Beckham, Theirry Henry and our very own Robbie Keane have all played in the MLS and further raised the profile of American soccer.
As the profile of the sport has increased in the states, American players of genuine quality have started to come to the fore with the likes of Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Tim Howard thriving in the Premier League in recent years having originally cut their teeth in their own domestic league.
The national team's performance at the 2014 World Cup also provided a major boost to soccer in the U.S. Led by former German international striker Jurgen Klinsmann, the team qualified from an extremely competitive group including eventual champions Germany, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and a resilient Ghanaian side.
The American’s lost out 2-1 to Belgium after extra time in the last 16, but this didn’t dent the feel good feeling the World Cup campaign created. Indeed, goalkeeper Tim Howard became a national hero almost overnight after a collection of fine saves against both Germany and Belgium.
There are many differences to how soccer is run compared to football in Europe. The MLS conducts transfers and allows each team two 'designated' players who can exceed a salary cap. These inevitably end up as star names from Europe such as Lampard and Gerrard.
This system may sound more familiar to those with an interest in American football or basketball, but so far the model has worked to create a competitive MLS.
While the MLS is still light-years behind the likes of the Premier League and La Liga, it is gaining ground fast and players like Gerrard and Lampard will only help this growth.
The key for the MLS is not to grow too much too fast like the ill fated North American Soccer League, but to continue to develop steadily. If that happens, we could well be seeing a new powerhouse emerging in world football and who knows, maybe even a proper inter-continental club competition in a format similar to the Champions League.