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The biggest foreign stars of the MLS would still rather be somewhere else

Kabir Chibber
By Kabir Chibber

Journalist

When David Beckham arrived in Major League Soccer in 2007, he was the biggest star to play soccer in America since Pele and heralded an upswing in the profile of the sport. It was also assumed that Beckham would help attract others and boost the quality of US soccer.

The question was, would the gravitational pull of ”Goldenballs” last long enough to make a lasting impact? The answer is yes. US soccer now attracts better quality players—most recently, Kaka to the new Orlando franchise and David Villa and Frank Lampard to NYC FC, both of which begin operating in January.

Then the question became, now that they’re in America, would these good players stay? The answer to that is more complicated. Thierry Henry, the second-biggest name to play in the MLS, has just announced that he is leaving the New York Red Bulls. He did well enough—though the happiest he seemed is when he added to his record goals tally for Arsenal on a loan spell in London in 2012:

Henry hasn’t officially announced what he’s doing next but has said that he will “stay in football, as a coach, a consultant or executive.” He’s also said he wants to help Arsenal win a Champion’s League trophy. That’s Arsenal he wants to help get better. Not the Red Bulls.

The MLS will not improve if its best players come, bang in a few goals, and then go back again across the pond again. As for Lampard, he hasn’t even arrived in New York but already there’s talk that he wants to cancel his one-way ticket. The former Chelsea midfielder is the most high-profile signing since Henry, and currently on loan at NYC FC’s parent club, Manchester City—where he is looking better than ever.

The 36-year-old’s performances have been so good there is talk of his loan spell being extended to the end of the English season—which doesn’t seem to bother Lampard at all. “I’ll just train as hard as I can… and then we’ll see what happens. I’m signed here until January so that’s all I can say at the minute.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of a club that is selling season tickets based on the fact that fans will see Lampard running around Yankee Stadium in the freezing January cold.

Jermain Defoe is another marque player for the MLS, having signed for Toronto FC from Tottenham Hotspur earlier this year and scoring 11 in 19 games. But speculation that the Englishman wanted to return to the Premier League led to much resentment, with the owner snapping: “If you don’t want to be here, get the hell out of our way.” Defoe stayed, but his relationship with the club seems to have fractured. He even jokingly—and revealingly—talked about his post-soccer plans in an interview with The Guardian: “When I finish maybe I’ll… go back to east London and find me a Sunday league team.”

Again, not staying in the MLS. First flight home.

Even for aging stars, the MLS is more a stopover than a destination. And while US soccer is a lucrative transit hub, then there are more and more leagues than ever competing for mature talent.

In that respect, Lampard and his chums are bending it like their leader, David Beckham, who himself went back to Europe in search of better soccer. He went on two consecutive loan spells to AC Milan, playing in the Champion’s League. In 2008, Beckham even missed half the MLS season so he could play for the Rossoneri—which didn’t endear him to fans (“Go home fraud!“), nor teammate Landon Donovan.

But say this for Beckham: he now seems committed to MLS’ future, and is working on bringing a MLS team to Miami.

But it doesn’t bode well for the MLS that none of the stars who came after Becks seems to want to stick around.