So, today I thought I would branch out and write about something non-rugby related. Someone recently posed me the question, “Can the United States become a future footballing power or will it always be a retirement home for big names?” I thought it was an interesting question, one which merited further investigation, so today’s topic is such.

David Beckham signing for LA in 2007.
David Beckham signing for LA Galaxy in 2007.

The question has once again come into vogue given that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have both played their last games in the Premier League and will be jetting off to Los Angeles and New York City respectively. Enjoying a few lucrative seasons in America during one’s twilight years is not a new phenomenon. Some may well believe that the trend only started in 2007, when David Beckham left Real Madrid for LA Galaxy. Rather than being a pioneer, Beckham simply just made it fashionable again.

Before Major League Soccer, which was set up in 1995, there was the North American Soccer League. Established in 1967, the NASL did not build up steam until the mid-1970s. Despite the presence of foreign players in the league since its inception, the NASL’s first big coup came at the beginning of the 1975 season when Portuguese legend Eusébio joined the Boston Minutemen.

For many, though, particularly in Europe, the NASL announced itself on the world stage in June 1975 when Pelé agreed to join the New York Cosmos. The then 34-year-old had not played for Brazil since 1971 but his move to New York put U.S. soccer firmly in the international spotlight. Pelé’s importance to the burgeoning league cannot be overstated. The Cosmos’ home attendance tripled in his first half-season there and his presence resulted in greater TV exposure. 10 million watched his debut game on CBS, which was then a record American audience for a soccer match.

Muhammad Ali and Pelé were the two most recognisable sportspeople in the world during the 1970s.
Muhammad Ali and Pelé were the two most recognisable sportspeople in the world during the 1970s.

The New York Cosmos were the LA Galaxy of their day. With Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, they drew an average of 40,000 fans at their peak. Upwards of 74,000 people crammed into Giants Stadium to witness them retain the NASL after beating Tampa Bay 3-1.

A spat of aging stars left Europe’s shores during the late 1970s for the glitz and glamour of America’s burgeoning soccer scene. George Best joined the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1976, as the West Coast’s answer to Pelé. After two years there he joined Fort Lauderdale in Florida.

In 1979 the Aztecs signed yet another marquee name, the three-time Ballon d’Or winner Johan Cruyff. Like Pelé before him, Cruyff doubled his side’s average attendance and won the NASL’s MVP award. Cruyff later joined his 1974 World Cup Dutch teammate Wim Jansen at the Washington Diplomats.

By the 1980s, though the league was in decline. Franchises were running up massive debts and a downturn in the U.S. economy did not help matters. As San Diego Sockers President Jack Daley said of the NASL’s heyday, “It became fashionable to chase the Cosmos. Everyone had to have a Pelé. Coaches went around the world forcing the prices up”. The league lumbered on until 1984 and ceased operations the following year.

After facing off in the 1974 World Cup final, Cruyff and Beckenbauer played alongside each other in the United States.
After facing off in the 1974 World Cup final, Cruyff and Beckenbauer played alongside each other in the United States.

For 10 years the United States did not have a national professional league. In 1995 Major League Soccer was established at FIFA’s request after the U.S. successfully hosted the 1994 World Cup. Again, interest was high when it began but numbers dwindled for the remainder of the decade. However the league learned the lessons of the NASL and implemented financial restraints in order to prevent another bust.

Beckham’s arrival in Los Angeles was expected by many to be the beginning of a new era for the sport in America. While LA Galaxy’s profile exploded worldwide as a result and shirt sales sky-rocketed, it would take four seasons before the Beckham effect produced silverware. That said, Beckham became the league’s first “Designated Player”. Although not completely immune from the salary cap, a DP player only contributes whatever the maximum wage of a non-DP is towards said cap. After that they can make however much the club can afford to pay them.

The rule has been since implemented by other MLS franchises and has been expanded to three DPs per club. This policy has seen a number of high-profile players from the European leagues during the 2000s make the journey across the Atlantic and ply their trade in America, such as Robbie Keane (LA), David Villa (New York City) and Kaká (Orlando). Gerrard and Lampard will also become DP players at their respective franchises.

For all the big-name players that have played in America, whether in the NASL or MLS, the majority of them have been in their thirties when they made the move. Pelé joined New York Cosmos as a 34-year-old, while Beckenbauer was nearly 33 when he joined for his first spell there. Eusébio was 32, Gerd Müller (34), Bobby Moore (37), George Best (30), Johan Cruyff (32); all over the age of 30 when they joined NASL franchises. This is a trend that has continued with the MLS. Gerrard will be 35 at the end of this month, while Lampard is 37 in June.

Former German teammates Gerd Muller (15) and Franz Beckenbauer (6) clashed during their NASL careers.
Former German teammates Gerd Muller (15) and Franz Beckenbauer (6) clashed during their NASL careers.

The fact remains that the star names that join American club sides are in their thirties and looking to enjoy a couple of financially beneficial years, all the while playing far less intensive club games and enjoying the lifestyle of Los Angeles or New York City (or Portland if that’s your sort of thing).

For the MLS to truly become a global powerhouse, a sweeping change must occur from within. In Ireland it is often bemoaned that the popularity of Gaelic games and, more recently, rugby dilutes the talent pool of football players. In America it is a similar situation. Despite a vastly larger population, a young talented sportsman will always prioritise American football, basketball, baseball, and, to a certain degree, ice hockey over soccer. A college scholarship in the big three will prove far more enticing than a much less lucrative one for soccer. In Forbes’ top 10 highest-paid athletes of 2014 list there were two basketball players and one American football player.

Advertisements and how “soccer” is packaged is also another huge obstacle for the sport to truly catch fire in the United States. Football is a fast-moving sport in which there are very few stoppages in the action. This proves problematic for American networks when it comes to wedging advertisements into the coverage. Given the stop-start nature of American football, it is no mystery as to how the Super Bowl commands huge advertising revenues. Although basketball is on par with football in terms of its frenetic pace, a 48-minute game is played over four 12-minute quarters, which takes over 2 hours 15 minutes to complete when timeouts, pauses and other breaks in play are taken into consideration.

In terms of average attendance, perhaps surprisingly, the MLS is third only to the NFL and Major League Baseball. Although being ahead of the NBA sounds impressive, basketball arenas are much smaller than football stadia. The Chicago Bulls recorded an average crowd of 21,343 for the 2015 season, the highest of all NBA franchises. The LA Galaxy drew a similar average attendance for the 2014 season and they were only third on the list behind Toronto FC (22,086) and the Seattle Sounders (an impressive 43,734).

This stat provides hope, though. If soccer can be packaged and sold correctly by the big networks, perhaps someday the game will be as big in the United States as it is in around the world, and not just for two weeks every four years.

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