By David Lewis
The season is about to kickoff. Fresh signings. Fresh kits. Fresh expectations. For many clubs it’s time to roll out their newest, shiny (or rusty) DP that has more wear and tear on its tires than a “68 VW Beetle (See last year’s Drogba model.) But wait, something strange is going on. Front office execs are finally seeing the light. They no longer hang their hats on mid-thirty Europeans like Pirlo (he’s been ok with NYCFC) and Lampard (more Fat Frank than Super Frank). MLS is finally shedding their “retirement league” stigma and going for the twenty-something DP – and in many cases early 20’s. Ok, the league may still revert to their old ways and make a big splash from time to time to up the league’s profile and kit sales (Ibra and Rooney next maybe?), but that’s the exception, we hope.
Side note: I expect LAFC to make some big over-the-hill signings next year when they join the league, but that’s because it’s Hollywood. It’s a star-driven city, whereas a place like Kansas City doesn’t have the pressure from their fan base to make the big European signing.
So why the seismic shift? Well, the bottom line is that clubs aren’t getting their money’s worth for these aging Euro stars. Gerrard and Lampard played parts of two season each in MLS. Both struggled with injuries which isn’t too shocking since they are geriatric in terms of soccer age. Gerrard played 34 games and Lampard limped around for 29. Considering there are 34 regular season games each year, well, let’s just say they spent more time with the physio than with their teammates. And when it comes to production, the two England internationals managed a combined 20 goals and 18 assists, which is about the same as an average season for Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco.
Yes, I was excited to see my hero Stevie G play in MLS. I even contemplated the sacrilegious move of a getting an LA Galaxy jersey (never did). But I wound up feeling sad that this once great man mailed it in and saw his 18-month stay in the states as a holiday. I will always remember Istanbul Stevie and will try to forget about the LA version.
I may be biased, but I feel (my) Columbus Crew started the trend: Get players in their prime, youngish, who want to play in MLS. Federico Higuain, the brother of Napoli star Gonzalo, has been one of the best midfielders in the league since he arrived at the soccer-prime age of 27. He played in Europe and South America and is the heart and soul of the Crew midfield, spraying passes all over the field with aplomb. His 39 goals and 35 assists over 123 games doesn’t tell the entire story. He’s dedicated to the league, has a great attitude, makes a sixth of what Gerrard made, and is the blueprint for what an MLS DP should be. And most importantly, he doesn’t need a cane to get around the field. (Other recent similar successes include: Giovani Dos Santos, Ignacio Piatti, Diego Valeri and Nicolás Lodeiro).
2017 expansion side Atlanta United have taken it to a new level with their youth movement. Let’s call this MLS 3.0.
Instead of taking established players in their mid-to-late-twenties as their DPs, as has been the trend the last few years, they are blending in signing players with raw potential from Central and South America who are closer to teen age. That means some hefty transfer fees (by MLS standards) so they can beat out European clubs for player signatures. This has never happened before in MLS. Ever.
Here are some of the young blood DPs on MLS rosters right now, ahead of the opening weekend of the new season, some of whom are the envy of the soccer world:
- Atlanta United have signed three South American DPs. Josef Martinez (23) from Venezuela is on loan from Serie A side Tornio with an option to buy at the end of the season. Hector Villalba (22) is from Argentina and Miguel Almiron (22) from Paraguay.
- Houston Dynamo have Mauro Manotas (21), a Columbian Under-21 international and Alberth Elis (21) from Honduras, who is currently the youngest DP in MLS.
- DC United have Luciano Acosta (22) from Argentina, looking primed for a fine second season in the league.
- FC Dallas have Carlos Gruezo from Ecuador (21) and have added Christian Colman (22) from Paraguay this offseason, a man expected to fire in plenty of goals this year.
- Vancouver Whitecaps have brought in Yordy Reyna (23) from Peru; not a DP but TAM was used to buy his contract down.
So yes, the Wayne Rooney’s of the world will probably make the trip stateside sooner rather than later. And hopefully Wayne will be more Robbie Keane and David Villa and less Lampard and Gerrard. But MLS 3.0 is the new trend. Hopefully these raw young talents will help MLS become a legitimate league that can grow a player’s career.
Youth might be wasted on the young. MLS can’t afford to do that in 2017.