America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), has long had a reputation for being a retirement league, home to aging European stars such as David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard. However, spearheaded by expansion clubs such as Atlanta United FC and LAFC, the league is looking raise its quality of play and shed that reputation by focusing on cultivating young talent, especially from South America.
The league’s “designated player” rule, which allows teams to spend big money to bring in international stars without counting their wages against the salary cap, was traditionally used to bring over former stars on big wages in hopes of selling seats. The players the league attracted were inconsistent at best, with some like David Villa performing well, while others like Rafa Marquez and Andrea Pirlo didn’t appear particularly interested on the field and only reinforced the “retirement league” stereotype.
Now however, a new wave of younger players are making their way to the MLS through the designated player rule, with promising results for the league. Atlanta United got the ball rolling before the start of the 2017 season, when they signed 24-year old Venezuelan starlet Josef Martinez from Italian club Torino. Martinez was a crucial player in Atlanta’s debut campaign, scoring 19 goals in 20 games. Seeing the success of the Martinez move, other clubs have followed Atlanta, leading to a sudden influx of young talent. The Houston Dynamo signed 22-year old Argentinian Tomas Martinez, and LAFC signed 19-year old Diego Rossi of Uruguay.
As teams continue to go all-in for youth, Atlanta continue to spend big. The team successfully pulled off a major coup, signing Argintinian teengager Ezequiel Barco for an estimated $15 million. With top European clubs such as Atletico Madrid and Manchester United also interested in Barco, the move is a sign of intent from MLS.
The changing reputation of MLS is also importantly a product of the league’s success in recent years, which now allows it to attract players it previously would not have been able to. The league’s average attendance reached over 22,000 for the first time last season, but even more importantly, teams now have more money to spend. Eleven players across seven different teams earned $2 million or more last season, showing that for the first time, numerous MLS teams can compete with Europe’s financial offerings.