x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ageing stars eye one last payday in MLS

The MLS has developed an appetite for signing decorated, but fading, players with big European clubs on their CVs.

Freddie Ljungberg, the Swedish midfielder, was quickly embraced by the Seattle Sounders fans last year, at age 32, as the face of a new franchise.
Freddie Ljungberg, the Swedish midfielder, was quickly embraced by the Seattle Sounders fans last year, at age 32, as the face of a new franchise.

The MLS has developed an appetite for signing decorated, but fading, players with big European clubs on their CVs Thierry Henry, the 32-year-old French striker, is the latest international footballer to develop a sudden interest in, and fondness for, American "soccer" in the golden years of his career. Going back to the days of the short-lived North American Soccer League (NASL) in the middle 1970s, football geriatrics from Europe and South America have braved storm-tossed seas to take advantage of what is often perceived to be easy money in a country where sharp declines in form and fitness, as well as modest efforts on the pitch, may go unremarked.

Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia showed the way, more than three decades ago, when they starred for the New York Cosmos. But for every player decorated with honours who performed well in the NASL, which spent itself into oblivion, just as many, such as George Best, clearly were jaded. Over the past 14 years, another US league has shown a growing fascination with players' names, to the exclusion of the state of their games.

Major League Soccer, which debuted in 1996, depended on outsiders from the start, but in the early years those skilled imports tended to be inexpensive stars from Latin America, such as Carlos Valderrama, of Colombia, and Marco Etchevarry, of Bolivia. Only in the past decade has the MLS really developed an NASL-style appetite for fading stars with big European clubs on their CVs. By splashing out on the likes of David Beckham, who famously received a budget-busting US$32.5 million (Dh119m) deal in 2007 to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, the MLS increasingly has strayed from its history of fiscal responsibility to indulge its taste in thirtysomethings with exotic passports.

Some of the ageing imports have delivered results and championships. Peter Novak, the Polish midfielder and Bundesliga Player of the Year with 1860 Munich in 1996, immediately turned the Chicago Fire into champions. Hristo Stoichkov, the Bulgarian striker, a Barcelona luminary, led Chicago to a finals appearance and the US Open Cup in 2000. John Spencer and Mo Johnston, the Scottish strikers, gave value for money. Freddie Ljungberg, the Swedish midfielder who played for Arsenal and West Ham, was quickly embraced by the Seattle Sounders last year, at age 32, as the face of a new franchise.

But just as many of the older players have had modest or even disastrous stints in the MLS, taking the money as their playing careers, often, ended with a whimper. Lothar Matthaus, the World Cup-winning Germany midfielder and 1991 Fifa Player of the Year, usually leads this part of the discussion. He was 39 when he joined the New York-based MetroStars, and miles past his prime. He criticised teammates and staff, failed to score in 16 appearances and was described as a "rich, pampered prima donna" and "one of the most high-maintenance players of his generation" by ESPN as he fled back to Germany.

Other failures include Beckham, whose injuries, prolonged absences to play half-seasons for AC Milan, the Italian Serie A club, and evaporating form have left the Galaxy wondering if they can sell enough No 23 shirts to warrant their five-year investment. Marcelo Gallardo of Argentina and the Brazilian Denilson, who graced the global stage at the 1998 World Cup in France, were each expensive, half-season blunders. Abel Xavier, the former Liverpool and Everton defender, was pilloried for both his attitude and performance at the Galaxy. Hugo Sanchez, the Mexican striker who made his name with Real Madrid, crashed and burned at age 38 in MLS.

Several other internationally prominent players did just enough to escape being branded flops. They include Roberto Donadoni, Andreas Herzog and Thomas Ravelli. Henry almost certainly will not be the last of the old guard recruited to the MLS after European clubs spurn them. Ryan Giggs and Rafa Marquez could be the next to take the leap. Perhaps a sobering thought for Henry is that one of his countrymen failed with the same franchise, New York, that Henry is joining.

Youri Djorkaeff was 37 in 2005 when he arrived in New York. He played poorly and is best remembered for telling the club, in June of 2006, that he needed to return to France (in the middle of the MLS season) for "an unexpected serious family matter." A few days later, club officials spotted him in the crowd at the France v Brazil quarter-final match at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Henry may have indicated a potential to be distracted when his opening remarks upon joining the Red Bulls included frequent use of the word "vacation".

"Some people might think I am going to go [to New York] for vacation, and I do go there for vacation," he said. "But not this time." MLS and the New York franchise can only hope so. poberjuerge@thenational.ae