Ever since David Beckham made the move from Real Madrid to the Los Angeles Galaxy at the age of 32 to see out the rest of his career, it has become in vogue for stars who can no longer compete at the highest level to move across the pond.
Some of the game’s greatest players over the past decade have followed the trendsetting Beckham, including Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Torsten Frings and Robbie Keane. It is an excellent way for them to remain playing, holding on to hopes of once again representing their national side as well as giving the MLS the much-needed star power to expand its brand.
There is little to suggest that this kind of transaction will stop any time soon. Changes in the rules in 2010 expanded the “designated player” options that currently allow teams to fund these transfers. Come this summer, we are likely to hear some once-superstar names come up in conversations about being the latest to make the move to the MLS.
Here are five of the biggest who could make America home to their swan song.
Alessandro Nesta announced yesterday that, after a decade of faithful service to AC Milan and nearly two for Italy, he would be retiring from European football.
The 36-year-old is one of the greatest defenders Italy has ever seen, playing in a period in the nation’s and Serie A’s history when defense ruled all. With three Scudettos and two Champions League titles to his name, you could make the case that, in terms of success, he even outmatches the great Fabio Cannavaro.
Of course, he has his options of post-retirement communites/leagues to choose from. The ever-increasing popularity of making big-money moves to Asia may spark his interest, but so far he has appeared set on coming to the MLS, citing he would “very happily” play in America.
The first thing that goes with age is the ability to keep up with the speed of the game. Nesta was never a speedster to begin with, and relied more on his positioning than anything to defend. Every MLS team would gladly have this man organizing their back line.
Henry was the first big-time goalscorer to come to the MLS as a legend of European football. This season has been his best by far, but his first two were mediocre by the expectations of many fans. That is because, for all his greatness, Henry primarily relies on good service from the midfield, something the MLS lacks in general.
That is not the case with Drogba.
The Chelsea giant was one of the top strikers in the world for some time, an imposing force with the rare combination of size, speed and incredible technical ability that no lone center-back can defend. In short, he, better than any player over the past decade, can make a goal all on his own.
At 34, he is undergoing a recent revival at Stamford Bridge, scoring goals at the most opportune moments and helping the club to their seventh FA Cup and second Champions League final. There are also ongoing contract negotiations as he is in the last year of his current deal.
If Drogba were to win the Champions League this season, he would have little left to prove in Europe and could be on his way west. Rumors circulated over the past two transfer windows that the Ivorian was already in talks with a few MLS clubs.
Drogba’s move to the MLS could be the biggest thing to happen to the league since the arrival of Beckham. He is hugely popular around the world, incredibly charismatic and the kind of athlete Americans love to watch. Oh yeah, and he would also be the best striker the league has ever seen.
The great German teams of the past decade were defined by one huge man in the midfield, their captain, leader and Bavarian legend Michael Ballack.
Ballack has played over 15 years of professional football at the highest level, winning a combined five league titles in Germany and England, as well as seven domestic cups. The only thing that eluded him in his club days was the Champions League crown.
Internationally, he is a German great, captaining his country to a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup and was in the All-Star team in 2002. With 42 goals in 98 caps, he is the eighth-highest scorer in the nation’s proud history.
At 35 years old, there is little to suggest that he will be able to fill the void left by not winning a World Cup or Champions League at this point in his career. But it is a perfect time for him to make a move to the MLS.
Less than three months ago, reports surfaced that Ballack was already in discussions about making the move. The flames were fanned by his sponsor, adidas, which was also keen on him helping to promote the MLS.
His contract is up with Bayer Leverkusen at the end of this season, and with no Champions League for them next season, odds are neither side will be looking to negotiate a new deal.
But the MLS would benefit greatly from a gifted and experienced central midfielder, whose leadership and control of the game would be an excellent example for young Americans to learn from.
Before it was the latest trend to drool over what the Spanish national team does on the pitch, there was only one name that used to be chanted around the Iberian Peninsula—Raul.
The 34-year-old Madrid native was with his native club for 20 years starting as a youth player and rising through the ranks to become the focal point of the Galaticos' teams of the early millennium.
He was a national treasure, representing Spain in 102 matches and scoring 44 goals—second all time—though he was doing it at a time when Spain was not the kind of offensive machine it is today.
Raul plans to retire from European football following this season when he played with German side Schalke 04.
Not more than a month ago, rumors were already flying about him coming to the MLS. Commissioner Don Garber has already expressed his interest in bringing the striker to the league after hearing about his very conditional retirement.
It is obvious that Raul is not the player he once was, but you cannot turn away that kind of legendary status. Just having him in the league will help gain exposure in his native country and make him an ambassador for its inclusion in the football-crazy nation.
Only a year ago did this seem like a reality, as the then-36-year-old Juventus legend was looking more and more at the end of his career. But my how things can change.
Del Piero was an important part of the revitalization of the Italian powerhouse that is Juventus this season, as the club won its 28th league title and became only the second to do it undefeated. Thought not as fast as he once was, his play through the midfield was as crisp and brilliant as ever and he was deserving of another trophy.
However, it is hard to ignore his advanced age and having to compete on so many top-level fronts next season. Juventus sadly has already acknowledged this fact and stated they will not renew his contract.
Del Piero’s agent has already tipped a possible move to the MLS where he could “display his immense talent.”
He may not be able to produce the magic he did 10 years ago, when Juventus was arguably one of the best teams the world had ever seen, but he certainly could bring quite a bit to America. His inventive play through the attack and excellent distribution is the exact kind of style the league needs to raise its profile.
Some fans see the move of aging has-beens to the MLS as not being productive for the league. Others find it the best possible way for the brand to continue to grow. Both sides have their cases, but what neither can argue is that there is no better entertainment in seeing these legends up close.
This list is just a few of the many greats that could be making their way across the pond this summer who would be welcome wherever they land.
So what other veteran stars would you like to see on your favorite MLS team?
As always, please leave your comments below and thanks for reading!
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