Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho sees this year’s influx of older European club stars into Major League Soccer as a key step in the North American league’s global evolution.
From former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard going to the Los Angeles Galaxy to fellow Englishman and Chelsea icon Frank Lampard signing with New York City and long-time Stamford Bridge teammate Didier Drogba going to Montreal, MLS has brought big names to a growing fan base hungry for top talent.
“The evolution is clear. You are getting superstars, people like Drogba, Gerrard, Frank Lampard,” Mourinho said. “I can see the difference. I can feel the difference.”
Add Italian star Andrea Pirlo and Spaniard David Villa with New York City and Brazil’s Kaka with Orlando and MLS has gone well beyond the days when only David Beckham’s Galaxy could arouse interest.
“Our sport is not the king here,” Mourinho said during Chelsea’s recent US tour. “Bringing our best teams and players feeds the pressure to grow.”
MORE FOOTBALL NEWS
The Portuguese manager sees preseason US tours from top European sides as part of building that MLS evolution and new pools of fans for overseas clubs as well.
“To leave a good image for our clubs is the most important thing, and to contribute to the power of our sport in the United States,” Mourinho said.
“The next evolution is to bring them a bit younger, with more than a couple of years, with more to give to MLS.”
Toronto might have started that movement, having let Jermain Defoe return to Europe and brought in 28-year-old Italian international Sebastian Giovinco, the “Atomic Ant” who spent most of his time at Juventus on loan to other clubs.
And 26-year-old Mexican star Giovanni Dos Santos has brought fresh excitement to the Galaxy following the arrival of Gerrard.
“Twenty years on, MLS has a culture and pride and resonance,” former US and MLS stalwart Alexi Lalas said. “Signing players in the prime of their career is the next step.”
As MLS draws more attention in Europe, younger players ponder North America as an alternative.
“Why not?” said 26-year-old Belgian international Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham. “The league is growing. They are putting a lot of money in it, so a lot of big players from Europe are coming. So why not here?”
Spurs’ 19-year-old prospect Dele Ali, new at Tottenham after a stay at Milton Keynes Dons, said the vote of support from the English greats and others is starting to resonate with younger talent.
“Definitely,” Ali said. “Obviously it shows with the players that come over — Gerrard, Lampard, all of them. The best players in the world are coming over and that shows it’s going in the right way.”
FOLLOW US ON TWITTER @NatSportUAE