Is Major League Soccer the league where great players go to retire? That's the question that arose Saturday afternoon before the league final between the L.A. Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, a rematch of last year's final. The Galaxy beat its opponents 3-1 for its first back-to-back Cup win in its history but the celebration was bittersweet as it was celebrity midfielder David Beckham's final game with the Galaxy and with the league, not to mention that midfielder Landon Donovan's future with the team and the league remains in limbo.
Galaxy and Club America fan Oscar Pineda brought this question up with his friend and fellow football fanatic Fernando Palacios as they celebrated at one of the many picnic/tailgate parties outside the game at the Home Depot Center. Palacios believes that Donovan will return to England to play for Everton, where he was on loan to before retiring in two years. "But MLS is the retiring center right here," responded Pineda. "Shouldn't he be over there in England playing then come to MLS and retire?"
MLS has suffered the reverse effect that leagues in Europe are famous for. Whereas many young players from all over the world head to Europe to improve their soccer skills by joining teams in the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, and Germany's Bundesliga, MLS is home to many foreign players who have arguably already played at their peak. There's Rafa Marquez, formerly of Atlas and FC Barcelona, and Thierry Henry, of FC Barcelona and Arsenal, on the roster for the New York Red Bulls. There's also Pavel Pardo and Cuahtemoc Blanco, current and former members of the Chicago Fire whose time in Mexico's Club America cemented their statuses as two of the best athletes in the sport. All of these guys are over 30 and, while some such as Beckham (age 37) are still exceptional players, they've already hit the high-water mark of their careers.
"When Beckham came to the Galaxy," said fan Steve Carrillo, "we weren't that good." The midfielder signed with the club in 2007 but spent most of his time injured or on loan until mid-2010.
Even new fans such as Ed (who preferred not to give his last name) can see the difference. Ed fell in love with soccer and the Galaxy when his friends invited him to last year's Western Conference final between L.A. and Real Salt Lake and was hooked since the opening whistle. He'd love to see the league grow its own talent at home in order to attract more fans at home and abroad the way other clubs overseas have.
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"When Tottenham [Hotspurs] came to play against the Galaxy," he said recalling L.A.'s international friendly match at home against the English team this past summer, "to me, it was heartbreaking to hear more Tottenham fans showed up than L.A. Galaxy fans."
The league has cranked out great players such as Donovan but it still has more work to do if it wants to create players that can compete on the same stage as Lionel Messi, Mario Balotelli, Neymar Santos, Javier Hernandez and other young talents rather than filling its club rosters with famous talent on its way out.
"Hopefully MLS can become something that the world will recognize," added Ed minutes before entering the stadium to witness a bit of MLS history firsthand.