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Aspire or Retire: MLS is No Longer a Retirement Home

By Jacob Sokol

Image courtesy of Atlanta United

In the 128th minute of the 2022 MLS Cup Final, Gareth Bale equalized the match with a header to the top corner. LAFC would ultimately defeat the Philadelphia Union in a penalty shootout 3-0. The Welshman showed up in the final seconds and delivered, creating a true Hollywood moment for LAFC as they claimed their first MLS Cup. With Bale, the 5 time Champions League winner, clearly capable of such class, it makes you wonder where he was the rest of the season.

Prior to the MLS Cup Final, Bale had played 347 total minutes across 12 games, scoring twice. For a player who used to score regularly for Real Madrid, these statistics can be seen as underwhelming. In the 2017/18 season, Bale scored 16 times in 26 games in La Liga, as well as 3 goals in 7 Champions League matches. Some looked at these numbers with high expectations for Bale to dominate MLS without acknowledging his most recent season at Real Madrid, where he played only 5 matches in La Liga, scoring just once.

The “Retirement League” is the most common phrase used to describe the phenomenon of European superstars giving Major League Soccer their last few seasons before retirement. Bale’s signing was the latest example of the “Retirement League” moniker being tested. With Bale finding himself on an MLS bench the majority of the season, perhaps it is time we reevaluate and eliminate the term “Retirement League” from our rhetoric.

“Retirement League” to Aspiring League

On July 1, 2007, history was made in Major League Soccer. David Beckham had just announced a lucrative five-year contract with the LA Galaxy under the new Designated Player (DP) Rule created prior to the start of the 2007 season. The contract guaranteed Beckham $6.5 million a year and set a new precedent in MLS. This was now a league that could showcase global stars.

Fifteen years later, with the clarity of hindsight, it is easy to say the signing of Beckham is one of the most important moments in the growth of MLS. There are now many designated players spread across Major League Soccer, which has elevated the level of play and profile of the league. Beckham, and those who followed in those initial years, would have more difficulty competing today in the environment they’ve helped to build.

Bale, Giorgio Chiellini, and Lorenzo Insigne are among the recent players who still fuel the Retirement League stigma. They all left top European clubs after age 30 to come to Major League Soccer. It is important to note that only one of these three had a highly successful first season in MLS. In 11 matches the 31-year-old midfielder, Insigne, managed 6 goals and 2 assists. That is because Insigne does not seem to have come to MLS with the same outlook as Bale and Chiellini. Insigne had just come off of a 3rd place finish in Serie A with Napoli, producing 11 goals and 9 assists. He was, and is, still capable of playing at the top level in Europe. Bale and Chiellini were both on the brink of actual retirement. They came to MLS and gave neutral fans the sense that the MLS may still be a “Retirement League”. However, they have found themselves mostly on LAFC’s bench while the rest of the team achieved so much success.

The DPs of today are different from what we are accustomed to in the past. Instead of Beckham, Thierry Henry, and David Villa, we are now looking at Karol Ṥwiderski, Thiago Almada, and Federico Bernardeschi. Players in their 20’s who have a strong desire for success and playing time that have now realized the benefits MLS has to offer. As a DP, you are automatically intended to be the star of the team, which comes with matching monetary benefits.

For Ṥwiderski, DP status has also helped maintain a national team position with Poland. The European striker notched 10 goals for Charlotte FC this year as the club’s top goal scorer. We can expect to see him playing alongside Barcelona forward, Robert Lewandowski, at the 2022 World Cup. Dániel Gazdag does not have DP status but is still worth mentioning as an example of what MLS can offer to players looking for a national team spot. Gazdag has been receiving regular call ups for Hungary lately while also narrowly losing the Golden Boot race in MLS.

New MLS Incentives For Roster Building

Back in 2012, the MLS made a rule change to the DP rule to help incentivize teams to sign younger players. They created a young DP spot which would take a smaller cap hit than veteran DPs. This led to the league signing some very promising young players such as Miguel Almirón, Diego Rossi, and more recently players like Talles Magno, Facundo Torres and Cucho Hernández.

The most recent roster incentive that MLS has implemented is the U-22 initiative, which started in 2021. This rules MLS clubs with three more roster spots to sign players under 22 years old to lucrative deals that would affect the salary cap less. Besides the reduction in the salary cap hit, these players keep their U-22 initiative status until they are 25. This provides clubs with the time to allow these young players to develop.

This initiative is just beginning to take root but the league is already reaping some of the rewards from this new incentive structure. José Cifuentes is the first name that comes to mind as he has become a vital part of the LAFC squad that just won the MLS Cup. Another U-22 initiative that broke out this year was LA Galaxy’s Dejan Joveljić. While he never secured a starting role this season, he seemed to always find the net off the bench.

This initiative could also develop into a way for MLS teams to retain their academy starlets for longer. This is already starting with players like San Jose’s Cade Cowell and LA Galaxy’s Efraín Álvarez. Overall, this initiative has added a new way to incentivize clubs to grow their rosters younger, with the intent of developing talent.

Recent Exports

Recently, MLS has shown an ability to sell young developing players on to other leagues. Over the last few seasons the league has broken several of their outbound transfer records time and time again. Here is a list of some of the more recent outbound transfer examples:

Paxten Aaronson is set to join Eintracht Frankfurt in January for a deal worth around $4 million, after being featured in this year’s 2022 MLS Cup Final. He follows his brother, Brenden, to Europe with this move. The U20 Concacaf Golden Ball winner and Philadelphia Union Academy product is the latest trade, showing the class of Major League Soccer’s youth.

Eighteen-year-old Goalkeeper, Gabriel Slonina, was purchased for $15 million by Chelsea earlier this year to break a Chicago Fire transfer record. Slonina has been consistent for Chicago all season, playing 32 matches. Real Madrid also showed interest in the young goalkeeper, which brought the initial bid of $5.8 million to $15 million from Chelsea. He also is now the 5th highest outgoing transfer fee for MLS as a whole.

New England Revolution’s Adam Buksa was traded to RC Lens for $6 million this year. Buksa scored 17 goals in 32 matches in 2021, and 7 goals in just 10 matches in 2022, before transferring to RC Lens. Buksa has also scored 5 goals in 6 matches for Poland during World Cup Qualifiers.

Taty Castellanos is enjoying a loan spell at Girona with NYCFC seeking a $15 million sum for the rising star. Palmeiras in Brazil and River Plate in Argentina both made bids for Castellanos, with neither matching the sum NYCFC hoped for. Premier League sides have also shown interest. Castellanos’s loan to Girona could be to show he can succeed in Europe and merit the high price tag.

Tajon Buchanan was transferred for $7 million to the Champions League club, Club Brugge, after the 2021 MLS season. The price tag looks like a steal in hindsight with the 23-year-old becoming a regular for Club Brugge in the Belgian Pro League and the Champions League. Buchanan has also been consistent for Canada during World Cup Qualifiers and the Gold Cup.

Miguel Almirón, a former Atlanta United midfielder, has been one of the best players in the English Premier League this season, scoring 8 goals for Newcastle United. Almirón produced 21 goals and 28 assists in 62 matches for Atlanta United, and won the MLS Cup in 2018. Almirón headed to Newcastle the following month, and now holds the record for highest MLS transfer fee at $26 million.

Alphonso Davies made his start at the Vancouver Whitecaps and is now considered one of the best in the world at his position. The left back has won the Champions League and multiple Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich. He is the second most valuable transfer out of MLS, behind Almirón, at $22 million. With over 100 appearances for Bayern Munich, he is arguably the most successful player to come out of Major League Soccer

Daryl Dike enjoyed a loan spell at Barnsley in 2021, scoring 9 goals in 21 matches. Dike returned to the English Championship after West Brom offered Orlando City a $9.5 million transfer sum. Dike scored 19 goals in 41 matches for Orlando. Unfortunately he has been injured for West Brom so he has only managed 3 appearances so far.

Brendan Aaronson, brother of Paxten, joined Leeds this year for a transfer fee of approximately $30 million, and has been essential to the club’s battle to stay out of relegation. With that transfer finalized, the Philadelphia Union ended up with $14 million for Aaronson because of prior negotiations with RB Salzburg. This makes him the 6th most valuable outgoing MLS player, just behind Slonina at $15 million. Aaronson is expected to be featured by the United States in the 2022 World Cup.

Ricardo Pepi started a bidding war amongst Wolves, Augsburg, Wolfsburg, and an undisclosed Premier League club in the Winter of 2022. Augsburg eventually came out on top with a $20 million bid, making Pepi the 3rd most valuable outgoing transfer in MLS history.

Djordie Mihailovic has been transferred to Dutch club, AZ Alkmaar, for January 2023. Mihailovic was in the running for MLS MVP during the early part of the 2022 season. He ended 2022 with 11 goals and 5 assists in 29 matches. At only 23 years old he has a bright future ahead in Europe.

There is example after example to show the class of player being produced, developed, and maintained in Major League Soccer. Young players like Davies, Buchanan, Slonina, and both Aaronson brothers are being developed into top talent capable of competing against the best clubs on the planet. Major League Soccer is becoming a league where players can count on developing their potential.

Players like David Beckham and those who followed hold an important part in the history of MLS. These stars attract buzz, sell tickets, and heighten the profile of the league. The more the league heads towards sustainable success, though, it is expected that these types of veteran players will be less of the lifeline of the league as they were in times past. If you come to MLS, today, expect to compete against young and hungry up-and-coming players. Major League Soccer has too many aspirations of developing stars to play the role of a retirement home.

Here is a list of sources used for this article: