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How do European Players Really Feel About MLS?

(Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)

Following the Los Angeles Galaxy’s elimination from the MLS playoffs in November, former Liverpool captain and new Galaxy midfielder Steven Gerrard spoke about his first few months in MLS. Gerrard had some nice words to say in regards to the standard of the MLS telling Eurosport that the quality is “a lot better than I initially thought,” and that anyone who wants to have a holiday and retire is in for a rude awakening.

Gerrard was referring to the perception that MLS is a league where European stars simply go for a few years to play out their careers before retiring. MLS of course developed that perception by spending large sums of money to bring in European stars who are at the end of their careers; whether it was David Beckham in 2007, or in 2015 when they brought in Kaka, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Andrea Pirlo and Gerrard himself. All of the members of the 2015 class had seen their contracts expire and their old clubs elect not to renew them.

This past week, Gerrard returned to Melwood (Liverpool’s training complex) to train with the club during the MLS offseason. Following his first training session with the club, Gerrard was obviously asked if there was any possibility of returning to the club on a short-term loan in January.

Gerrard firmly ruled out any chance of that happening, in fact he had ruled it out in a previous interview with Eurosport. However, it wasn’t Gerrard ruling out a loan move to Liverpool that caught my eye, it was his reason for ruling it out, a reason that actually gives us a tremendous insight as to how European players truly view MLS.

When asked if he would consider a loan move to Liverpool Gerrard had this to say, “I’ve retired from the national team so I don’t have to go and prove myself in Europe.”

With that quote Gerrard told us everything we need to know about how MLS is viewed in Europe. The attitude there is that while the quality of play is improving, by moving to MLS  you’re still taking a step down in quality by going there. Therefore if you want to be considered for the national team you still need to prove you can hack it in Europe.

This isn’t anything new. It’s been happening from the moment David Beckham paved the trail for European stars to come over to America. In order to keep himself in contention to be selected by England manager Fabio Capello for the 2010 World Cup, Beckham went to Italian side AC Milan on loan in the winters of 2009 and 2010.

Beckham wasn’t the only one of course. In January of 2010, Landon Donovan signed a short-term loan with Premier League side Everton in order to sharpen up prior to the World Cup. In January of 2014, Clint Dempsey did the same thing when he signed a short-term loan with Fulham in the Premier League. Irishman Robbie Kean even joined Aston Villa one winter to better prepare himself for Ireland’s World Cup Qualifiers.

Now of course the quality of play in MLS has gotten much better since Beckham first started playing in it. However you also can’t deny that Gerrard’s statement are very telling.

Take a closer look at what Gerrard actually said when he said MLS isn’t a retirement league. Following that statement Gerrard went on to say:

“Every single game is a different challenge, certainly on the road you come up against places and teams where it is very hot and very humid; some teams play on astroturf. So each game is very tricky and very difficult.”

When Gerrard warns players that this isn’t a retirement league, he isn’t referring to the high quality of players in the league. Even Gerrard knows you can’t make that argument with a serious face when Bradley Wright-Phillips, a player who flamed out at four Championship and League One sides in England, came to MLS and tied the single season record for goals in a season. Or how about how Thierry Henry used to drift in and out of games, turning it on for 5-10 minutes at a time and absolutely dominating during that time frame?

When Gerrard warns players that the MLS isn’t a retirement league, he’s warning them about the tremendous toll playing in the MLS will take on their bodies. This isn’t the first time Gerrard has made comments about being unprepared for the challenges of MLS, as in the heat, humidity, altitude, turf and travel that playing in the league entails.

It’s not something that’s talked about often and perhaps that’s why it caught Gerrard off guard but he’s right. Playing in the MLS is difficult for all those reasons. Players in Europe are used to playing through the winter, the only time they play in heat is when they come to the United States on their pre-season tours. While those games might be hot, most players are only playing between 45-60 minutes a game, and they’re not giving maximum effort.

The travel is no joke either. With the exception of the Washington D.C.-Philly-New York-Boston part of the country, you pretty much have to fly to every away game. In England 95 percent of travel is done by train, with teams really only boarding planes for European fixtures. Then there’s the artificial turf problem, the MLS has a lot of teams that play on turf.

At the end of the day Gerrard’s comments reveal that the stigma in Europe continues to be, if you play in MLS and still want to represent your national team, you still need to prove yourself in Europe in the winter.

Sorry MLS fans.

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