When Dutch World Cup standout Nigel de Jong left Europe for the Galaxy last month, he said soccer was only one factor in his decision.
“It’s the total package,” said De Jong, who bought his way out of a $9-million contract extension in Italy to sign a $500,000 deal with Major League Soccer. “You see what America, what the United States, can offer you apart from playing football.”
De Jong isn’t the only one to reach that conclusion. Last season, nearly half the players on the 20 MLS rosters came from outside the U.S. and Canada, a jump of nearly 20% over the last decade. And the league, which kicks off its 21st season Sunday when the Galaxy plays D.C. United at 7 p.m. at StubHub Center, expects the number of foreign players to keep growing with the U.S. lifestyle being a big reason why.
Andrea Pirlo, mobbed whenever he stepped out in Italy, is playing with New York City FC and marvels that he can visit a museum or eat dinner undisturbed in Manhattan. Steven Gerrard gave up cold and dreary Liverpool, England, for a sprawling house in sunny Beverly Hills when he signed with the Galaxy last summer.
And Kaka, a Brazilian and a former world player of the year, joined the expansion Orlando City last season and still can’t believe he lives down the street from Disney World.
“Players love to come to America,” said Bruce Arena, the Galaxy’s coach and general manager. “We’re very fortunate. Every player in the world wants to come to MLS.”
Well, not every player. But enough.
For many Latin Americans, the league offers a secure paycheck and an escape from deadly street crime, both of which came to be difficult to find at home. For Pirlo and other big-name European stars, the U.S. offers a welcome level of anonymity.
“It’s refreshing and peaceful. I go about my day-to-day business pretty much unrecognized,” said Gerrard, who took his daughter Lilly-Ella to the Santa Monica pier shortly after she arrived in Southern California and said it was their first public outing when they weren’t hounded by fans and paparazzi.
His daughter is 12 years old.
“It’s a big attraction,” said Houston’s Giles Barnes, who played in England before joining MLS four years ago. “You’ve been under so much scrutiny and under the microscope for so long you kind of miss the importance of your family and doing things outside of football.”
David Beckham started the import trend in 2007, when MLS allowed the Galaxy to go beyond the league’s meager salary cap to sign the English star. That immediately raised the profile of MLS, whose games were soon being broadcast around the world. And that, in turn, drew other international stars, among them Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Rafa Marquez of Mexico, Thierry Henry of France and Robbie Keane of Ireland.
Now that modest trickle is a raging flood, with a record 252 foreign-born players having played for MLS teams last year.
“There’s going to be more,” said Frank Lampard, who left England’s Manchester City for New York City FC last season. “I know that from speaking to a lot of players in the dressing rooms in the Premier League over the last few years. More players, English, European, generally top players, are going to come over and play.”
Younger players too. Beckman and Henry didn’t come to the U.S. until they’d lost their starting jobs in bigger leagues, saddling MLS with a reputation as a retirement home for aging players. And while that reputation has stuck, the reality is changing.
Italian Sebastian Giovinco was only 28 when he was selected the MLS most valuable player as a rookie last season. Mexican World Cup star Giovani dos Santos was 26 when he joined the Galaxy in August. And FC Dallas midfielder Carlos Gruezo of Ecuador, one of the top stars among this season’s imports, isn’t even old enough to drink.
“The more quality that comes into this league, the better,” said Seattle’s Clint Dempsey, who returned to MLS from England in 2013. “You’ll see more younger players coming in their prime to help this league get better.”
The jury is still out on how quick that is happening. Although many of the import players say they were surprised by the high level of play and challenged by the travel and weather in a continent-sized country, MLS still has its detractors.
Juan Carlos Orosio, coach of the Mexican national team, recently said he would prefer his players go to Europe and not to a “league for players at the end of their careers.” U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann has made similar comments.
MLS executives wear those criticisms like an albatross around their necks. But even Giovinco, who led MLS with 22 goals and 16 assists, suggested it was too easy at times.
“The beauty of this league is there are fewer tactics,” he said through an interpreter. “For attackers it’s better because there are more chances to score. For a defender it’s maybe not the best.”
Pirlo, Kaka and others echoed those sentiments, although they said that things are changing.
As the likes of Giovinco, Dos Santos and De Jong, still in his prime at 31, continue to flood the league, the level of play will continue to rise. And that will draw more quality players to MLS, making the cycle spin faster. (The influx hasn’t affected native-born players. Thanks to expansion, 272 players from the U.S. and Canada appeared on MLS rosters last year, the second-highest total in league history and only nine fewer than the season before.)
As a result, Lampard said it’s time the league gets over its inferiority complex.
“There’s a stage here with MLS where you should have confidence the league’s good,” Lampard said. “You don’t have to talk it down. You don’t have to look for the bad side.
"[It’s] a standout league on its own. Embrace that.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11