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Major League Soccer Gambles On Star Power Of Aging Foreign Players

New York City FC's Andrea Pirlo warms up before an MLS soccer match against Orlando City SC on Sunday at Yankee Stadium.

"We want Pirlo! We want Pirlo! We want Pirlo!"

On Sunday night, this chant thundered through Yankee Stadium, where Major League Soccer's prized acquisition from a top European club, legendary Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo, was set to make his debut with the New York City FC. The 36-year-old former Juventus star took the field as a sub in the second half, but from the cheers of the more than 30,000 fans, it was as if Babe Ruth had just scored the winning touchdown for the Knicks.

Pirlo is part of a growing list of aging foreign stars to sign contracts worth millions with MLS teams:

  • On Monday, 37-year-old Ivorian striker Didier Drogba signed with Montreal Impact.
  • Spanish forward David Villa, 33, and English midfielder Frank Lampard, 37, also have joined NYCFC
  • English midfielder Steven Gerrard, 35, and Irish forward Robbie Keane, 35, play for LA Galaxy
  • Brazilian midfielder Kaká, 33, signed with Orlando City SC.

Considering Pirlo's storied resume, it's easy to get excited about the former World Cup champion and it's easy to forget that his best playing days are behind him. Former U.S. Men's National Team player and current ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman, however, hasn't forgotten.

"I've been very vocal about this from the beginning. I'm not a huge fan of these signings. I'm much more a fan of ... the young players with a chip on his shoulder still left with something to prove," Twellman says, naming a handful of 20-something stars in the MLS, including Mexican star Giovani Dos Santos.

"If you are going to go the European route, Robbie Keane is the absolute perfect example of someone who still has plenty left at the table. I think the jury is out on what Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba will bring to Major League Soccer," Twellman says. "Effort has never been a concern of mine [...] but Father Time is a different issue."

This strategy of luring high profile stars with huge contracts isn't unique to MLS, or even to soccer, but since the league instituted a "designated player" rule in 2007 — allowing teams to sign players who don't count toward the salary cap — it has acquired a certain reputation in some circles.

"If you talk to Europeans, they talk about the MLS as a retirement home now. It's not good for the image and that perception will percolate back to the United States, as well," says Stefan Szymanski, who is the author of Soccernomics and Money and Soccer and who recently questioned the viability of MLS as a league.

MLS spokesperson Dan Courtemanche is quick to dispel this notion as "incorrect," saying that only a small fraction of MLS players are foreign stars over 30.

It started with England's David Beckham, who joined the LA Galaxy in 2007 as the league's first designated player. Beckham's cultural clout, combined with his valuable (if diminished) presence on the soccer field, raised the profile of MLS.

"His impact was immense on this league," Washington Post soccer writer Steven Goff says. "People who had never even heard of MLS, because of Beckham, knew MLS, knew the Galaxy, knew Beckham was in town. He sold a lot of tickets and boosted MLS' marketing efforts. ... In terms of him on the field, he was on the back side of his career. Clearly, he wasn't going to do as many special things as he once did, but that wasn't the point. A guy like that — it was about branding and marketing."

If Beckham's time with the Galaxy put MLS on the U.S. pro-sports map, the hope now is that the arrival of well-known but aging foreign stars will not only draw more fans to the stadiums, but boost MLS' slowly improving but still dismal TV ratings.

"By having world class players, it's going to make it more exciting, so indirectly I think the answer is yes," Courtemanche says about whether older stars will have a positive impact on television ratings.

Szymanski, however, has his doubts about how much of a draw these stars will be. He thinks the best way forward for the MLS is to become a development league for European leagues.

"A team like NYCFC could be a place where stars were loaned temporarily while they were out of form and they can be then called back to Europe to play when they're needed -- and interestingly, that's sort of exactly what happened with Frank Lampard. He [signed with NYCFC] then went back and played with Manchester City for half a season," Szymanski says.

"Because the European clubs might increasingly be interested in owning teams in the MLS, this might be a very successful long-term strategy, he adds. It's not quite major league, but it would enable more European players to get exposure in the United States at a stage in their career where they were still not seen as being in semiretirement."

The question of whether aging stars will benefit MLS in the long-term is just one of many facing an organization working to meet its ambitious goal of being one of the best soccer leagues in the world by 2022.

"MLS is trying to strike a balance. They're trying to bring in big names who are also quality players and continue to develop young players and more seasoned players who are in the U.S. national team pool. It's a combination," says Goff of the Post. "There is definitely a middle class in MLS that is good and stable and getting better. And then you have the top shelf guys who bring a little more attention and experience and world class quality."

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