Despite growth, MLS is still struggling to give fans the two things they want from the league

Steven Gerrard Andrea PirloKevork Djansezian/GettySteven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo.

Major League Soccer kicks off its 20th season next weekend, and while the league has undoubtedly made great strides over the course of two decades, it nevertheless continues to struggle to transcend its reputation as a retirement league for ageing international stars.

Consider the following names currently on active MLS rosters: Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Liam Ridgewell, Kaka — you could nearly field an entire starting side made up exclusively of players age 30 and older, all of whom enjoyed prolific careers in Europe and now ride out their soccer careers collecting cushy Designated Player contracts stateside.

David Beckham’s arrival in 2007 from Real Madrid is often interpreted as the maiden voyage of ageing internationals coming to finish out their careers in the states, but so long as MLS has existed, so too has its reputation as a retirement league. Go all the way back to 1996, the league’s inaugural season, when Carlos Valderrama was the most well-known player in the league (only partially because of his hair).Valderrama was 35 when he joined the Tampa Bay Mutiny, and had already traversed leagues in Colombia, Spain and France.

On Monday in New York City, MLS Commissioner Don Garber addressed this issue following an announcement of a partnership between MLS and TAG Heuer.

“People pay attention to the guys that are 34, 35, but they don’t pay attention to the dozens that are signed in their twenties,” Garber said. “It’s just the way people focus their attention. There was all this talk [last season] about the age of players that were coming in in the January [transfer] window, but the average age was 26, the youngest in three years.”

Garber added that these high-profile players often distract from a younger batch of talented players, both American and international, currently playing in MLS. One of these is Toronto F.C.’s Sebastian Giovinco, a 5’4 Italian international who won the league’s MVP award last season, and whose highlight reel rivals the best of them.

“Giovinco is arguably the most exciting player that this league has had in a very long time,” Garber said. “He loves our league, he loves Toronto, and he’s turning 27. So that’s what we focus on.”

The problem at the moment for MLS, however, is maintaining a balance between the veteran players that will sell tickets based on name and reputation alone, like Lampard or Gerrard, and the younger, more talented players, like Giovinco, who will improve the overall quality of the league.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on what people care about, and they are interested in a continuing increase in quality of play in Major League Soccer. But they also want stars,” Garber explained. “They want players that allow them to attach to some of the great legends that they followed from afar or followed when they were kids playing the E.A. game. So it’s just a balance that we’ll continue to work on.”

This, it seems, is the great paradox presently plaguing MLS. For the overall quality of the league to improve (for the league to shed its “retirement home” reputation), it will need the star players during their primes, not after. But these players don’t sell tickets like Drogba or Villa, even if they’re better.

There’s another problem, too, which is retaining young talent. Between the money and prestige of the leagues in Europe, given the opportunity all the best young American talent — like 20-year-old Matt Miazga, a product of the N.Y. Red Bull youth academy who recently signed with English mega-club Chelsea — will try to stick abroad before returning to MLS.

This is augmented by the fact that USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann is openly critical of MLS, preferring, if not explicitly encouraging, his players to pursue clubs in Europe so they can play among the best in the world. This makes sense for Klismann, who only wants the players on his national team to be more competitive, but hurts MLS.

In the end, Garber would likely point to Jordan Morris as an example of the way the league is going — and needs to go. Morris, a member of the men’s national team and a recent Stanford grad, opted to join the Seattle Sounders, his local club, instead of German Bundesliga team Werder Bremen.

At the moment there’s no dearth of young American soccer talent. Many, however, are overseas. When more and more young players follow Morris’ footsteps and stay put, the overall quality of MLS will improve. Only then will the league start to move past its reputation as a retirement league.

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