No Rooney, no Zlatan, no Schweinsteiger, but does MLS need Europe's aging stars anymore?

Several big names have departed this winter, but it’s a safe bet that more will arrive in their place

Even before the days of MLS, American soccer embraced the megastar. Pele and the New York Cosmos were legendary, but George Best, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Eusebio all called the NASL home. In the early years of MLS, teams didn’t have the financial clout to make many big moves, but that didn’t stop players like Carlos Valderama, Hristo Stoichkov and Lothar Matthaus from coming stateside.

But the moment David Beckham stepped foot in Los Angeles, MLS changed. It was a critical moment for what was, at that point, a young league in need of a spark. Beckham’s signing was that vital turning point, one that would alter the league forever by ushering in the era of the Designated Player.

In the 12 years since Beckham made the league mainstream, MLS has seen a number of other major stars follow in those footsteps. Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Kaka headline a vast list of legendary figures that have since called the league home, with varying results. The infatuation with these types of players has remained, whether the moves have worked on the field or not.

Now, the league faces another critical turning point, coincidentally as Beckham returns to MLS as an owner of Inter Miami. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Bastian Schweinsteiger have all departed MLS this offseason, leaving the likes of Nani and Bojan Krkic as the league’s most accomplished European figures. The biggest incoming name, at least so far, has been Henry, who has returned to the league as manager of the Montreal Impact.

It’s a far cry from the history-making names of years past as the league suddenly has a lack of star power. But, if history has taught us anything, it’s that there will always be a place for players like Ibrahimovic, Rooney and Schweinsteiger in American soccer.

Over the past few years, the league has undergone a bit of a shift. The league’s most recent champions, teams like the Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United and Toronto FC, haven’t been built on the Beckham-led model that produced the LA Galaxy dynasty. Instead, the league’s best teams have used Designated Player slots on in-their-prime internationals, players like Raul Ruidiaz, Josef Martinez and Sebastian Giovinco, or up-and-coming stars that can be sold on for profit, like Miguel Almiron or Diego Rossi. Those players carry plenty of talent, but nowhere near the recognition of some of their DP predecessors. 

But, in a league still jockeying for mainstream attention and still battling for overseas respect, there’s still a place for the megastar. There’s still a place for big-name players looking to spend the last few years of their career in a league that is, by all accounts, a step down from Champions League caliber. There’s still a place for a player that could get a few casual eyes on the television screen for a league that is still struggling to emerge as a national entity.

The league, as a whole though, is lifted by these types of players. Away stadiums are filled and casual fans tune in, and maybe those people like what they see. Players like Ibrahimovic and Rooney are an introduction, but it’s players like Ruidiaz and Martinez that will keep fans coming long term.

Realistically, it just needs to be the right fit.

In every way, Ibrahimovic and Rooney were that for the Galaxy and D.C. United, respectively. Ibrahimovic scored nearly a goal a game, even if he never delivered on the championship that was promised. Rooney, meanwhile, ignited a dormant club, led them to the postseason and brought a bit more fire back to an organization that had lost its way. By any measure, that’s a success. Those signings were good signings.

And that’s why it’s impossible to write off these kinds of signings. It’s easy to say the ‘retirement league’ days are done because, in a way, they are. Players like Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo’s final acts were nothing like the many that preceded it, as the two were exposed by the pace of MLS before calling it a career. Those were the signings of desperate teams that looked at the name, not the player that name had become. Those signings were bad signings.

There’s a balance to be struck, and the teams that find that balance will be the ones who truly grow. That balance is different in each and every market. Atlanta has shown that on-field quality wins out. Meanwhile, other clubs have struggled to draw despite great success. It all works on a team-by-team basis. Some teams need a big-name crutch, while others do not. 

In the coming months and years, a number of teams will be tasked with sorting that difference, and Beckham’s Miami side is seen by many as the league’s next big spender. The club has already been linked heavily to the likes of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, and that’s not to mention the persistent reports connecting them to the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann. With their ownership situation, location and cultural clout, Miami appears to be the league’s next superteam and, in a market as fickle as South Florida, you can bet that they won’t spend quietly. They’ve started the process with the signing of Argentinian youngster Matías Pellegrini, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that a Beckham-led Miami project won’t bring in at least one megastar before a ball is kicked.

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This offseason will also be a vital one for several teams that face crossroads of their own. The Galaxy will need to figure out how to replace Ibrahimovic’s production and, as a team that has made a habit of finding salary cap workarounds, it’s likely their move for Cristian Pavon won’t be their last. If Los Angeles FC pulls the trigger on a Rossi sale, they’ll be in the market as well. Henry promises to make the Impact’s offseason interesting while the Chicago Fire’s rebrand and relocation will need to be kickstarted with some type of bang. 

Of course, some will choose to spend their money on young South American stars that can be sold for a profit in two or three years time. Some will look to smaller leagues in Europe for under-the-radar talent that just needs to break out. And some will use that money to make a legitimate splash as clubs battle for on-field supremacy just as fiercely as they do for national and international relevance.

In the years since Beckham’s initial arrival, MLS has shown it can stand on its own two feet without being propped up by name recognition. It’s become apparent that high-quality soccer will win out regardless of how many Champions Leagues a guy on the field won when he was in his 20s. The league’s recent champions have shown that, as have the massive crowds that have flocked to support those teams.

But, even as the league enters an offseason of relative uncertainty, one thing is for certain: big names will always have a part to play in MLS. It’s just a matter of who’s next.

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