How MLS Gone From “Retirement League” to Developing Top Young Talent


If you’ve followed MLS in any capacity for the past twelve years, you’ve almost certainly heard the term “Retirement League.”

Much like the leagues in China and Australia, MLS has long been seen as a place where aging European stars can find a nice and sweet place, and plenty of money, before facing the harsh realities of life without football. .

This approach has seen some, like Thierry Henry and David Villa, extend their legacy by treating the league as another challenge to be dominated.

Others, like Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, will count their time in America as largely forgettable, an informal footnote that leaves you wondering “Why did he have to go?” “

But, over the past few years, that narrative has started to change. The days of older stars coming to North America are not over, of course, but the way MLS does business is now completely different.

It’s not a league built on aging stars looking for a final round, but rather young talent who are just starting their journey to the top.

It’s a league built around the Ricardo Pepis, Caden Clarks and Tajon Buchanans of the world: young Americans and Canadians 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 the plunge in the United States.

Inspired by the sales of Alphonso Davies and Miguel Almiron, clubs are now drawn into this new race to see who can best identify the next multi-millionaire player, whose sale could change a club’s trajectory forever.

As the league prepares for the MLS Cup between the NYCFC and the Portland Timbers, this 2021 season is about to end, and the biggest takeaway is how far this league has come in developing the next big stars. Sport.

The retirement league is over; MLS is slowly emerging as the premier talent factory in North America.

“We’re bringing in younger players,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “I don’t think there is, or should be in anyone’s mind, this idea of ​​people coming to Major League Soccer in general as a place to retire.

“There will always be players who come during the latter part of their careers, and Zlatan went to Milan when he was 37 or 38. I don’t worry about one or two players.

“It’s really ‘Where’s our target?’, And the focus is on recruiting young players.”

As Garber says, the focus in recent years has shifted towards developing and signing 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 produced Weston McKennie, Reggie Cannon and Bryan Reynolds, all of whom now play in the top leagues in Europe. Ricardi Pepi will join them soon, with the FC Dallas forward likely set to make some big bucks after exploding onto the scene as the MLS Young Player of the Year.

Check out the Philadelphia Union, a team that narrowly missed this weekend’s MLS Cup. Brenden Aaronson shines in the Champions League while Mark McKenzie plays for Genk in Belgium.

How did they replace their two stars? With another influx of young talent, players like Jack McGlynn and Paxten Aaronson, looking a year or two away from making their own major leaps.

It’s a model. The other can be seen at clubs like Atlanta United or, most notably, NYCFC when they take the field for the MLS Cup this weekend.

During its early years, NYCFC relied on these older stars. Villa, Pirlo and Frank Lampard were the clubs’ signature signings, but the real success eluded them.

These days the club is built differently. Using City Football Group’s extensive recruiting network, the club have uncovered real rough diamonds, key veterans overseas and, most notably, talented youngsters.

Castellanos, this year’s MLS Golden Boot winner, only played 31 games before joining MLS. He only scored 17 goals in his first two and a half seasons before really exploding with 19 goals this season at 22. ESPN‘s Taylor Twellman, Castellanos could now leave this winter for hefty transfer fees.

Magno joined the club this summer as one of Brazil’s top-rated prospects. With leagues around the world struggling due to the pandemic, the South American leagues, in particular, have been hit hard financially. Some MLS clubs, meanwhile, have the money to spend and the ambition and connections to move a player of Magno’s caliber.

Certainly one for the future, Magno is one for the here and now too, coming off the bench to score the final winner against the Philadelphia Union in the conference final.

Situations like Magno’s are now becoming the norm. Last summer, MLS teams spent more money and paid higher fees than ever before, as clubs begin to see the benefit of investing in future stars of all shapes and sizes.

Look at Castellanos and Magno. Two South American stars, one unannounced and one backed by a lot of hype, are key to the two NYCFC title prospects. Money that was once spent on players known for their past is now spent on players who can define the present and future of the club and the league.

“We were really just a buying league,” Garber said, reflecting on past MLS affairs, “and we had to be like every other football or soccer league in the world: both buy and sell.

“We always buy more than we sell, but we are reaching the point where we are able to create high value for the players who invest and become an involved and committed league in the international market, no different from any other. league.

“We are on track to meet our goals on this front. We have spent more money and bought more players than ever in the summer of 21, more than in the last five seasons before that. So that’s the balance we’re trying to achieve and I think right now we’re in a pretty good position. “

Magno and Castellanos may well secure their transfers in the future, but, this season alone, several young national stars have sealed major trips to Europe.

Clark Red Bulls 20211

Clark is bound for RB Leipzig, having emerged as a star to watch with the New York Red Bulls in late 2020. This connection between New York and Leipzig is reflected by several MLS clubs, FC Dallas with Bayern and the link of the NYCFC with Manchester City being the most notable.

Clark’s transfer has therefore always been part of the plan, with MLS being the first stepping stone to Europe.

“The platform [MLS] giving players is so important, ”said Clark GOAL last month. “Each European team is watching over the young players here because they see that they are now a major asset in the market and for their team.

“So I think staying this year was the best thing for me, just to prepare myself mentally and physically and to get the playing minutes I need to go out there and have the experience under my belt. “

Buchanan’s path to Europe was less straightforward. The Canadian forward has seen firsthand how the game has developed in his country, having seen players like Alphonso Davies and Cyle Larin use MLS to get started in Europe.

Like Larin, Buchanan’s journey has gone through university and, like Larin, the winger is now bound for Europe, Club Brugge in particular, after breaking through in MLS.

“The talent is starting to show,” Buchanan said GOAL when asked about Canada’s harvest of young stars. “They have a lot of youngsters playing on the national team and a lot of veterans that we all learn from.

“We have a good balance, so the future is definitely bright for Canada with all the young talents going through the academies. “

Since the start of 2021, MLS has seen a number of players settle in Europe. Aaronson and McKenzie did it in January, as did Joe Scally and Bryan Reynolds. Sam Vines signed with Royal Antwerp this summer, while Gianluca Busio and Tanner Tessman are now in Serie A with Venezia.

Buchanan and Clark are following them this winter. Pepi certainly will, too. Castellanos maybe too, and there are countless other young stars just waiting to be the next Davies, Tyler Adams or Miguel Almiron to shine in the biggest leagues in the world.

There is still room for the players to move in the other direction. The league will always host a player Gonzalo Higuain for the power and talent of the stars involved.

He will also always benefit from unsung stars like Carles Gil, Alejandro Pozuelo or Sebastian Blanco, the latter of whom could make the difference in the MLS Cup this weekend if he is in good health.

But the era of the retiree league is long over. The MLS store window is open for business, and business is just starting to look good.


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