If you’ve followed MLS in any capacity throughout the last dozen or so years, you’ve almost certainly heard the term “retirement league.”
Much like the leagues in China and Australia, MLS has long been branded as a place for Europe’s aging stars to find a nice, soft landing place, and a whole lot of money, before facing the harsh realities of life without football.
That approach has seen some, like Thierry Henry and David Villa, expand their legacies by treating the league as yet another challenge to be dominated.
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Others, like Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, will count their times in America as largely forgettable, an unceremonious footnote that leaves you wondering: “Why did he have to go there?”
But, over the last few years, that narrative has started to shift. The days of older stars coming to North America aren’t over, of course, but the way in which MLS does business is now entirely different.
It’s not a league built on aging stars looking for one last run, but rather young talents just beginning their journeys toward the top.
It’s a league built around the Ricardo Pepis (photo below), Caden Clarks and Tajon Buchanans of the world: young Americans and Canadians emerging from two growing soccer nations.
It’s also a league built around players like Talles Magno, Valentin Castellanos and Brenner: South American starlets who have chosen to take their next steps stateside.
Inspired by the sales of Alphonso Davies and Miguel Almiron, clubs are now drawn into this new race of who can best identify the next multimillion-dollar player, one whose sale could change the trajectory of a club forever.
As the league prepares for the MLS Cup final between NYCFC and the Portland Timbers, this 2021 season is just about to be wrapped up, and the biggest takeaway is just how far this league has come in developing the sport’s next top stars.
Gone is the retirement league; MLS is slowly emerging as North America’s premier talent factory.
“We’re bringing in younger players,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “I don’t think there is, or should be in anybody’s mind, this idea of people coming to Major League Soccer broadly as a place to retire.
“There are always going to be players that come over during the latter part of their careers, and Zlatan (Ibrahimovic) went to Milan when he was 37 or 38. I’m not worried about one or two players.
“It really is, ‘Where is our focus?’, and the focus is on bringing in young players.”
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As Garber says, the focus has shifted in recent years, to the development and signing of young players.
MLS academies are still in their infancy compared to their counterparts in Europe and South America, and several have already emerged as legitimate hubs of major talent.
Look at FC Dallas, which has produced Weston McKennie, Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds, all of whom now play in top leagues in Europe. Pepi will soon join them, with the Dallas striker likely set for a big-money move after exploding onto the scene as MLS Young Player of the Year.
Check out the Philadelphia Union, a team that fell just short of this weekend’s MLS Cup final. Brenden Aaronson is shining in the Champions League while Mark McKenzie is featuring for Genk in Belgium.
How did they replace their two stars? With another influx of young talent, players like Jack McGlynn and Paxten Aaronson, who look a year or two away from making their own major leaps.
That’s one model. The other can be seen in clubs like Atlanta United or, most notably, in NYCFC when they take the field for MLS Cup final.
For its first few years, NYCFC relied on those older stars. Villa, Pirlo and Frank Lampard were the club’s marquee signings, but actual success eluded them.
These days, the club is built differently. Utilizing City Football Group’s vast scouting network, the club has uncovered some real diamonds in the rough, some key overseas veterans and, most notably, some talented youngsters.
This year’s MLS Golden Boot winner, Castellanos, played just 31 games before coming to MLS. He scored just 17 goals in his first 2 1/2 seasons before truly breaking out with 19 goals this season at age 22. According to ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, Castellanos (pictured below) could now leave this winter for a hefty transfer fee.