On Monday, Aug. 15, the Los Angeles Galaxy signed Irish national team captain Robbie Keane in an attempt to solve some of the club’s scoring problems up front. Keane becomes the Major League Soccer’s fourth high-profile international signing in five years, and the second for the Galaxy.
Robbie Keane is no longer the striker that he once was. He failed to earn a spot in Tottenham Hotspur’s starting lineup for this season, and scored only one goal in ten matches last year. Despite Keane’s rather poor performance last season, I believe he’ll be a good signing for the Galaxy. Keane is still at a higher level than most of the strikers in the league.
However, with MLS signing yet another player past their prime, is it really good for the league? Is MLS becoming a league known as a haven for older stars like Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, and David Beckham instead of developing its own elite players? As a fan of the league, the answer to both questions is yes.
The league’s salary cap structure and talent base is not set up for young players to be able to stay in MLS. There is the potential for higher pay and the chance to play in the UEFA Champions League soccer if they move to Europe. Why would a young American star want to stay in MLS for lower pay and no chance to play teams like Manchester United and FC Barcelona for championships? Our young players are going to leave for Europe once they are developed enough to go. FC Dallas’ Brek Shea is one of those young stars that has apparently drawn interest from European clubs, and New York’s Tim Ream has also talked about making the move to Europe.
With our younger prospects leaving for Europe, the league needs to find some star power to help draw people to games and grow the sport. While I don’t always believe that Beckham has prioritized playing for the Galaxy, he has been a tremendous ambassador for the sport. In one example, Keane noted how Beckham spoke highly of the Galaxy and MLS when training together at Tottenham earlier this year.
Some fans may argue that Beckham, Henry, and Marquez aren’t impacting MLS much at all. A friend of mine even noted that none of these players’ teams sell out the Home Depot Center and Red Bull Arena. However, that’s not where we see their impact. We see their impact in road matches where fans get to see them play just once a year. One example of this is in Columbus.
The Crew have struggled for the past few years to fill up their stadium, however there is one match currently on the upcoming schedule that the club refused to sell me single-game tickets for: the Sept. 24 match against the Galaxy. The Crew ticket office told me that the Galaxy game is their biggest draw because of Beckham, and the only way they’d sell me tickets to the match was if I’d buy a multi-game package. The Crew also told me it’s been this way since Beckham arrived in Los Angeles.
The Red Bulls also draw fans when they’re on the road too. The truth is players like Beckham, Henry, Marquez, and now Keane draw fans to the stadium. It doesn’t matter how old they are. That’s why it’s good for the league. Just by playing in MLS, they are using the reputations they earned in Europe to entice more fans to embrace the sport. Even if the league earns a reputation as a place where over-the-hill players go to finish their careers, it still helps soccer grow in North America.
Hopefully, as MLS continues to build its base across the country, it’ll develop a new reputation as one of the world’s best leagues. In the meantime, the league needs stars to serve as the faces of the league. If it means that MLS has to bring in international players a bit past their prime, then that’s fine with me. I just want to see soccer grow in this country, and players like Beckham, Henry, and Keane are playing a role in that growth.
Derek Ciapala has followed soccer ever since the 1994 World Cup, and has supported the Los Angeles Galaxy since the team began play in 1996. You can find him on Twitter @dciapala.