Since David Beckham's arrival in Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2007, the American soccer scene has witnessed a succession of European stars who brought not only their undeniable talent but also an international dimension to the sport in the United States. Even before Lionel Messi landed at Inter Miami, a constellation of renowned players had already illuminated MLS pitches, each leaving their unique mark and contributing to the league's exponential growth in terms of popularity, visibility, and competitiveness.
David Beckham: The Financial and Media Explosion
The starting point of this journey was undoubtedly David Beckham's signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. At that time, the former global soccer popstar surprised the world by trading the glamour of Real Madrid for the United States. His five-year contract, with a seemingly modest annual salary of $6.5 million, turned out to be a masterstroke. Beckham not only shone on the field, playing 118 matches and winning two MLS titles, but he also catalyzed a financial and media "explosion" for the league.
The presence of Hollywood stars in the stands during his debut and the subsequent multi-million dollar sponsorship deal with Herbalife for the Los Angeles Galaxy were milestones that redefined MLS's status in the global sports landscape. Beckham, upon retiring as a player after the 2012 season, left behind a legacy that transcended the boundaries of the playing field.
Thierry Henry: Between Individual Brilliance and the Quest for the Title
The "Beckham experience" paved the way for other icons of European soccer to follow suit in MLS. Thierry Henry, after his stint with Barcelona, decided to venture into the United States and signed with the New York Red Bulls. His exceptional skills and elegant style made him not only a standout player but also an ambassador for the Red Bull global sports project.
Although Henry shone individually, his quest for the MLS title was a narrative that slipped through his fingers. The 2013 season saw the New York Red Bulls leading the league, but a semifinal elimination in the Eastern Conference dashed Henry's hopes of clinching the title. His contribution to the league, however, was undeniable, standing out as one of the prominent figures paving the way for the future of MLS.
Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard: Expectations and Challenges in MLS
The arrival of Andrea Pirlo at New York City FC in 2015, with an annual salary of $8 million, raised expectations regarding the performance of the Italian "Maestro." However, Pirlo's time in MLS was marked by physical challenges and a performance below expectations. His on-field influence did not fully match his reputation, and NYCFC fell short of expectations during his tenure in the league.
Another heavyweight name that landed in MLS was Frank Lampard, who, after his historic stint with Chelsea, joined New York City FC in 2015. A controversial loan to Manchester City marked the beginning of his journey in the United States. Although he contributed with goals and assists, Lampard couldn't guide NYCFC to the coveted playoffs in his first season, and a semifinal elimination in the Eastern Conference in 2016 concluded his MLS tenure.
Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney: Prominent Captains in MLS
Two iconic captains, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, left their distinct marks on MLS. Gerrard, after a melancholic farewell from Liverpool, joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2015. His $9 million per season contract was a final financial boost before retirement. Although he led the Galaxy to the playoffs for two consecutive years, the team was eliminated on both occasions, marking the end of Gerrard's stint in the United States.
Wayne Rooney, on the other hand, chose DC United as his MLS destination after leaving Manchester United in 2018. His leadership, commitment, and impressive statistical contributions, with 52 games, 25 goals, and 14 assists, highlighted him as a central figure in the league. Rooney not only shone as a player but also showcased his versatility by undertaking defensive duties on several occasions, a notable contrast to some veterans who opted for a more restricted approach.
Didier Drogba and Bastian Schweinsteiger: Notable Contributions and High-Profile Retirements
Didier Drogba's arrival at the Montreal Impact in 2015 brought with it a goal-scoring explosion, even though the player was beyond his physical peak. His time in MLS was marked by impressive numbers, including 23 goals in 41 matches and leading the Montreal Impact to the Conference Final in 2016. Drogba's decision to end his career with the Phoenix Rising, after a brief stint with Corinthians, solidified his lasting contribution to American soccer.
World Cup champion Bastian Schweinsteiger chose to make a move to the Chicago Fire after a challenging experience at Manchester United. His arrival in 2017 coincided with the team's renewal, culminating in a playoff qualification after a five-year drought. Despite facing injuries at United, Schweinsteiger managed to play 66 matches in MLS, tallying 5 goals and 8 assists over two years. His retirement in 2018 marked the end of a brilliant career, even without winning the MLS title with the Chicago Fire.
Kaká: The Impact of the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year in MLS
The arrival of Brazilian Kaká at Orlando City in 2014 brought with it the expectation of a performance befitting his status as the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year. In his first season, Kaká immediately made an impact, contributing 11 goals in 30 matches. However, the team fell just short of securing a playoff spot.
In the following years, Kaká maintained a satisfactory individual performance, registering 9 goals and 5 assists in 29 games in the second season and subsequently facing injuries that limited his participation in the last season. Despite not leading Orlando City to the playoffs, Kaká's impact on MLS transcended statistics, solidifying his legacy as one of the great players to pass through the American league.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: The Star Who Lit Up Los Angeles
In March 2018, Zlatan Ibrahimovic brought his charisma and unique skills to MLS by signing with the Los Angeles Galaxy. His memorable debut, featuring a spectacular volley goal and a deadly header, quickly set the tone for his time in the United States. With 22 goals and 6 assists in his first season, Zlatan not only marked his territory in the league but also earned a spot in the All-Star Game.
In the second year, taking on the captain's armband, Ibrahimovic continued his spectacular journey, recording 31 goals and 8 assists in 31 games. His contribution was crucial in taking the Los Angeles Galaxy to the playoffs, although the season ended bitterly with a semifinal elimination to LAFC.
Ibrahimovic's return to AC Milan after his MLS stint was marked by a farewell befitting his personality on Twitter: "You wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You're welcome. The story continues... Now, go back to watching baseball." A message that encapsulates not only Ibrahimovic's peculiar humor but also the indelible mark he left on MLS.
Legacy and Transformation of MLS: The Post-European Stars Path
The legacy left by European stars such as Beckham, Henry, Pirlo, Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney, Drogba, Schweinstester, Kaká, and Ibrahimovic becomes an integral part of the league's narrative. Their contributions go beyond on-field achievements, shaping MLS into a more attractive, competitive, and global competition.
These stars not only raised the technical level of the league but also significantly expanded its fan base, capturing the attention of viewers worldwide. The presence of European football icons stimulated not only local passion but also the internationalization of the sport in the United States.
Their experiences in MLS not only enriched the league but also provided a smooth transition to the next phase of their lives in the sport. Many opted to stay in the world of soccer as coaches or executives.
With Messi carving his own path in MLS, the challenge now is to maintain and enhance the standard set by these European football legends. American soccer is more ready than ever to have a star of Messi's caliber, and the expectation is that his presence will further contribute to the development and internationalization of Major League Soccer.