Lee Wellings: Is American soccer really moving forward?

There was a time, when Beckham’s Miami project was first gathering pace and New York and Manchester City first joined forces, that I suggested in this column a crucial period for club football was emerging in the States. Or more accurately franchise football.

But three thirtysomethings from over the Atlantic indicate things haven’t actually changed that much from the 70s. The idea back then was to hire legends like Pele, Beckenbauer and Moore to sprinkle their stardust over the league. The importance of the brand encapsulated by Pele’s enduring link with the New York Cosmos.

These days it’s Keane, Lampard (if he ever leaves Manchester) and now Gerrard who want to spend the autumns of their careers, to put it politely, in the MLS. But there is a difference between their moves and Beckham’s.

The Americans got Beckham closer to his prime. At the age of 31 he was still a considerably athlete, delivering to an underrated standard, and there were genuine questions about whether he should be taking his talents to an inferior standard of football.

The major reason to move from Spain may have been the money-spinning, high-profile, pioneering union, not ‘football reasons’, but the quality was still there in his right foot and so was the fitness level.

Yes, Lampard is still performing for Manchester City but he is a retired international and shouldn’t be expected to produce the level he did for Chelsea over a glittering decade at the Bridge.

For most imports their best days have long gone by the time they rock up in the MLS. And my question to the MLS is when are they going to start attracting star players in their prime? It’s a league and ‘product’ run competently and marketed well by commissioner Don Garber and co. But why wouldn’t, why shouldn’t they be able to compete to get signatures of stars near their peak.

This is a time when soccer in the United States really cannot be dismissed anymore.

The evidence was everywhere while I was covering the World Cup in Brazil for Al Jazeera.

There were more American fans in Brazil than any other visiting country, including Argentina. The geography may have helped, but there was a huge wave of interest beyond that. An interest reflected by the viewing figures – 25 million for one match – more than play-off games in basketball. Even Obama had to express an interest. Can you imagine previous American presidents being in that position over the round ball football.

And then there’s the American national team itself. Please don’t still pretend these guys are not impressive and patronise them. Name many better examples of a group of players who perform as a team. Squeezing every drop of ability they ‘brought it’ against Germany, Ghana and Portugal to get through the Group of Death. And the game against Belgium may have ended in defeat, but it was one of the most exciting games in World Cup history. There were over fifty chances!

Jurgen Klinsmann has done an excellent job as coach, but again I ask, where are those at the top of their game in the MLS?

Which brings us to Robbie Keane and a disclaimer – that this is in no way a criticism of Keane, who can inspire only admiration with his quality and longevity, at the age of 34. LA Galaxy is Keane’s 10th club, which says a lot about whether America is seeing him at his glorious peak. And yet he was undoubtedly the star player in the MLS last season.

Captaining Galaxy, he scored the winning goal in the finals against the New England Revolution, his 19th goal of season to accompany 14 assists. Unsurprisingly he was made MVP. These are wonderful achievements and you would hope and expect he is having the time of his life. But how close could he get to MVP in the English Premier League? Or indeed Spain, Italy, Germany?

What is clear is that the MLS is not in their league, so to speak. Not even close. I actually thought it might be by now and in the future it may be.

One major critic has been Klinsmann, who has gone as far as to urge young American players to try their luck in Europe, much to the chagrin of Garber.

I have to confess I watched the closing stages of the MLS season and Keane doing his thing. The quality, and I mean real quality, just isn’t there. What there IS, is the space to perform. No wonder Keane is banging in goals, just like he did in a recent Euro qualifier against Gibraltar.

While the awesome NFL continues to show up the business side of football with it’s unpredictability, competitiveness, endurance and accuracy of officialdom, the MLS may need an injection of genuinely fresh legs on the pitch itself.

The league structure is looking solid and the crowds are now there though it could really do with the Miami franchise materialising properly and the uncertainty about location and stadium being resolved.

If and when Miami take the field who’s going to playing for them? Ageing Barcelona players…Wayne Rooney…or one or two superstars with a bit of youth on their side?

Now wouldn’t that be ‘major league’.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1634529284reeza1634529284jla@s1634529284gnill1634529284ew.ee1634529284l1634529284. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport