When Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard swapped Anfield for Los Angeles this summer, the consensus in the global soccer community was that he had given up. As with many who had made the transatlantic switch before him, it was widely agreed that he could no longer cut it at the highest level, he was surplus to requirements at his boyhood club and he was off for an easy payday in the sun. The same aspersions would be cast over New York City FC’s acquisition of Italian regista Andrea Pirlo and talismanic Englishman Frank Lampard. Like Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff in the late 1970s, these three had peaked and wanted a lucrative swan song in the United States it seemed.
What could not be called into question however was the steady progress that the game was making Stateside. Buoyed by an emphatic victory over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final and with an increasingly impressive roster of players in the country’s elite men’s league, soccer was undergoing somewhat of a revolution in a country that had struggled to embrace it so many times in the past. The latest trio of Europeans would join a cast of international stars that included Kaká, David Villa, Giovani dos Santos and Gerrard’s former Liverpool team-mate and ESPN’s MLS Player of the Year, Robbie Keane, leaving the MLS in its rudest health since its inception in 1993.
It does seem to even the most casual observer however, that the reputation of soccer is on the rise and that America is about ready to take the game seriously on a larger scale than ever before.
Two weeks into soccer’s new dawn and things show no sign of letting up. MLS attendances steadily increase week-by-week and the quotes coming from the league’s new Englishmen sound nothing like those of old men longing for the comfort of a retirement home. “My challenge is to come here and win. I would not have come here if I did not think I had a lot left in me” explained NYCFC’s Lampard to The Independent, “My aim is to play good football. If there is a debt, then I will try and answer it on the pitch. I’m a straight person. I work hard.”
Lampard’s former England teammate is in a similarly defiant mood and, after getting two halves of playing time under his belt in as many weeks, laid out his intentions.”I’ve always said, from a young age, the moment the buzz goes is the moment I stop playing football” explained Gerrard to an assembled Los Angeles press, “so of course the buzz and the excitement is still there. Of course it is.”
Whether this is years of PR coaching talking, and the pair are simply saying the right things, remains to be seen. It does seem to even the most casual observer however that the reputation of soccer is on the rise and that America is about ready to take the game seriously on a larger scale than ever before, due in no small part to the stature of its newest heroes. Whilst the three European stars may be longer in the tooth than most soccer coaches would like, their pedigree is above and beyond that of many of their contemporaries. Just last year Andrea Pirlo was at the forefront of Juventus’ charge to the Champions League final, whilst Lampard’s cameos for Manchester City took him within a whisker of his fourth Premier League title and Steven Gerrard was recuperating from the agony of a slip and an Iago Aspas corner that cost his Liverpool side the league just twelve months previously. These are no washed-up, has-beens and a host of European clubs were undoubtedly vying for their signature. Yet they chose America.
The false dawns of George Best, Pele and USA ‘94 still burn in the conciousness of American fans and who knows how long the latest buzz will last.
“I still think he has some good years left,” offers Seattle Sounders and former Fulham man Clint Dempsey on Gerrard, “he has a lot of experience and leadership qualities that he can pass on to those players. “To be able to tactically put his two cents in, that will only make them better.”
A long season awaits Major League Soccer’s latest acquisitions and if they can surpass the global brand that is David Beckham in bringing soccer to the masses they will have done the unthinkable. The false dawns of George Best, Pele and USA ‘94 still burn in the conciousness of American fans and who knows how long the latest buzz will last. Three of the game’s most decorated midfielders is a good start however, and if things keep heading in the right direction this could be the year that the world’s game becomes America’s game as well.