When French legend Thierry Henry announced his retirement at the end of the New York Red Bulls’ 2014 campaign, he also brought to a close an important chapter in the history books of Major League Soccer.
Henry, the storied iconic figure from Arsenal, became a symbol, too, for MLS. The Red Bulls forward dominated in his five years at the club and despite never winning the MLS Cup, he will forever remain a respected, revered figure in the league’s early history. But Henry’s retirement from the game isn’t just the closing of the era of a player’s legend, but also the end of the second era in MLS, one that saw the league undergo tremendous growth and set up for an even brighter future.
Henry was a member of a class of Major League Soccer stars now departed: this era started with U.S. national team hero Landon Donovan joining the LA Galaxy and was thrust into the spotlight of mainstream media when David Beckham joined him soon after. Players like Henry, Torsten Frings, Juan Pablo Angel, Jaime Moreno, Dwayne De Rosario, and Guillermo Barros Schelotto soon became the heroes of their respective teams as the class of the millennial decade duked it out for supremacy.
Of that class, few made it through to the next decade; Henry and Donovan were the last, bowing out now on the advent of the third era of Major League Soccer. Their contributions to the league are the benchmarks now for success: Donovan holds the record for goals scored and assists in MLS. There will be new faces that will challenge him for those crowns.
Donovan and Henry stepping down does not leave the league without stars, though: quite the opposite. Now, a new generation of top talent is set to kick off in 2015. New York has acquired two huge names in Spanish striker David Villa and English midfielder Frank Lampard. These household names carry global star power with them: Toronto FC has an English international of its own in Jermain Defoe while the LA Galaxy boast another legendary Premier League forward in Robbie Keane. Orlando City flaunts Brazilian icon and Ballon D’Or winner Kaká, perhaps the biggest name to join MLS since Beckham himself.
Meanwhile, and quite simultaneously, a new trend has emerged among locally developed players in MLS: American international players now look to MLS as a viable career destination: Toronto FC lured back the U.S. national team’s most important figure, Michael Bradley, and the Seattle Sounders picked up the U.S. sides’ captain and most valuable attacking threat, Clint Dempsey. Many more U.S. national team players followed suit.
Orlando and New York represent just a few of the new teams that will define this third era of MLS history: in the coming years, a few other new franchises will join as the league strives to have 24 teams competing by the year 2020. Franchises have already been awarded to Atlanta and to Los Angeles, with Miami also in the cards, should the ownership group there find a suitable downtown stadium location.
The Miami ownership group, led by David Beckham, is the most curious of the new teams but there are other cities in contention as well: Las Vegas, Minnesota, and Sacramento are all possible destinations and the league has also shown it can take teams away, too, folding Chivas USA after years of underperforming both on and off the field.
These new teams have a fresh start but some of the league’s older teams are getting facelifts, too: whether it’s new logos for teams like San Jose, Sporting KC, and Columbus, new or improved stadiums for teams like D.C. United and Toronto FC, or an entire rebrand for Major League Soccer itself, it seems each team is doing something to freshen up their identities in the coming years.
But perhaps the best changes will occur on the field itself: MLS used to be defined by its physical, rough play but in recent years, a new trend has emerged. Teams that succeed today and will most likely succeed in the future are much faster and much more technically sound. It takes a lot of smart passing and movement with awareness to succeed in MLS today and that will only improve as the quality of other teams in the league improves to match it, too.
Academy systems across the continent are also pumping out young talent at an unprecedented level and synchronized efforts from these clubs to create clear cut pathways from these Academies to their respective first teams gives children in the U.S. and Canada a much better chance of succeeding. The league’s partnership agreement with USL-Pro, the third division of soccer in North America’s soccer pyramid, allows MLS teams to essentially run their own reserve teams, giving players a better chance of proving themselves instead of fading away from a lack of playing time.
As the league continues to grow, it will also face challenges: the big hurdle right now is the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiations between the league and the Players Union. The results of this CBA could shape the way teams in MLS are built: an increase in Designated Player spots, for example [from three spots to four or five, maybe more] would see the star power among teams with richer owners increase exponentially. A higher salary cap would also see better talent coming in internationally and more opportunities for locally grown players who succeed to stay in MLS.
Among the changes, it is that growth that remains a constant. MLS continues on its upward trajectory with no signs of stopping. Soon, we may look back at the days of David Villa, Kaká, Bradley, Defoe, Dempsey, Lampard and co. as just the start of a bigger, bolder Major League Soccer.