The Gerrard Experiment Proves MLS Must Rethink DP Policy
By Alex Baker
LOS ANGELES – Now that the curtain has well and truly been drawn on Steven Gerrard’s tenure with LA Galaxy, we can fully embrace the unfortunate truth that the Liverpool legend’s time in Major League Soccer was less than stellar. In 34 appearances over a season and a half with the club, Gerrard score five goals and made 14 assists.
Not terrible numbers, but not enough to justify a player earning Designated Player money who was brought in to anchor the team from the center of the pitch. The Gerrard experiment, or perhaps “exercise” is more accurate, served to disrupt a Galaxy midfield that if not exactly fine-tuned, was well balanced and effective.
Gerrard’s arrival, midway through the 2015 season, coincided with a downturn in the Galaxy’s championship winning form that the club still hasn’t really recovered from. While it is indisputable that Gerrard became a hindrance to the Galaxy on the pitch, his presence generated excitement in the city and around the league.
Crops of fans sporting Liverpool colors became a regular sight at Galaxy games, both home and away. One of the most celebrated and well-liked of English footballers of the last 20 years, Gerrard attracted fans who would’ve been unlikely to attend MLS games otherwise and yes, sold jerseys by the score.
But that’s no longer the criteria by which MLS DPs should be based upon. MLS inarguably has a long way to go before it can compete with the top leagues in Europe. But it’s no country for old men either.
Many Galaxy fans have been dismissive of Gerrard, accusing him of simply not caring and wanting to enjoy an 18-month working holiday during his time in L.A. But those of us who were fortunate enough to get to know Gerrard in the dressing room and at post-game press conferences will tell you that’s not the case.
Gerrard did care. Unfortunately, his legs were simply not up to the challenge of playing as a 36-year-old box-to-box midfielder in MLS. But you can’t really blame Galaxy president Chris Klein, then-coach Bruce Arena, commissioner Don Garber and anyone else who signed off on the Gerrard deal at the time.
Lest we forget that 12 months prior to joining the Galaxy, Gerrard had been on the cusp of leading Liverpool to its first Premier League title in almost a quarter century. And he represented England in the World Cup that summer. The degree of Gerrard’s ineffectiveness in MLS came as something as a surprise to many, including Gerrard himself.
The fact is that when you sign players of a certain age, it’s not always clear what condition their bodies will arrive in. Contrast Gerrard with David Villa, another 35-year-old decorated European veteran who just won league MVP.
For all of its faults and criticisms, MLS’s Designated Player system is unlikely to change any time soon. But if the league really wants to grow and shake off the “retirement league” stigma it’s still saddled with, it needs to start signing more Sebastian Giovinco types and fewer Steven Gerrards
Giovinco arrived in MLS at 27, in his prime, a talented player who found himself suffering for playing time at his club Juventus. In two seasons with Toronto FC, he’s taken the league by storm, racking up an astonishing 39 goals and 31 assists. And yes, he’s sold a few jerseys along the way.
Could it be as simple as that for MLS? Shifting the focus slightly away from the marquee names looking to win an MLS Cup as a kind of victory lap at the end of a storied career; and instead looking for younger players at top clubs who may not have the star power, but still have the hunger and would be willing to cross the Atlantic for a shot at more playing time, and generous compensation of a DP contract.
It sounds simple enough and one only needs to look as far as the course of Giovinco and Gerrard’s careers in the league over the past couple seasons to see it makes sense. Currently Galaxy are being linked with Wayne Rooney who at 31, while hanging on to his prime, is no longer finding the playing time at Manchester United he once was.
There are many such players around Europe. Talented players, who are not yet on the verge of retirement and still have the desire and juice to light up Major League Soccer. How about we take a pass on the Gerrards and Frank Lampards and sign those talented players who have yet to make their mark?