Of Sunsets and Soccer

Wayne Rooney pisses me off. While I often have a hard time coming to a settle position on any issue, I thought I had my thoughts on older international stars coming to MLS settled. Then Rooney screwed that up.

Wayne Rooney has clearly been an unqualified success, personally and for DC United. And in being so successful, he’s forced me to think that maybe I need to question my stance on international stars, who can no longer start in their own leagues, coming stateside to finish out their careers.

It’s a long running question, right? What are the costs and benefits of bringing aging stars to MLS? I’ve always come down on the side of thinking it’s an overall negative. Several years ago, I was at a tailgate in Columbus prior to a USMNT game (the infamous “Deuce Face” game). Amongst the beer and banter, a conversation struck up about who in the crowd were MLS fans and who were not. I was vocal about being a fan and argued that the quality of the game in MLS was always improving. The guy to the left of me got something of a thoughtful look on his face and said, “Well, it’s ok. It will be a good sunset league for older players.”

I cringed.

It's not the only time I—or any of us—have heard such a statement. And it always makes me cringe. I’m realistic about the quality of play in MLS, but I enjoy it anyway. Ultimately, if quality was the only determining factor in a sport, it wouldn’t make much sense that college basketball and football are so popular. They’re clearly nowhere close to professional levels, but the games are competitive and the crowds are fun. When I hear someone make a statement about the league being a sunset league, however, . . . . yeah, that sounds neither competitive or fun. While I don’t mind watching amateur versions of pro sports, I’m not all that interested in watching senior circuits (I mean, I’ll watch McEnroe and Borg hit the ball around for awhile, but only if I hap upon it). And “sunset” league sounds like a senior league. Not real soccer. Just legends kicking a ball around.

So, what are some of the arguments against bringing these guys in? First, while there may be only one or two on a given team, it makes casual fans think that the entire league is retirees. Maybe this shouldn’t bother me, but I do think that reputation hurts league growth (but more simply, I’m just tired of refuting it). Second, when a guy like Rooney just completely busts out in his first months here, something he was no longer able to do in the Premier League, it provides some goobers with enough evidence for them to claim that the league must suck if “that old guy” is doing so well (they conveniently ignore the “sunset” players who really don’t do well here). Third, when teams use one of their three Designated Player spots and a lot of funds for these guys, they can’t use those resources for younger players with a great deal more potential for development and future sale. In effect, when you spend money on one of these guys, you spend a DP spot and DP cash for what Tutal Rahman calls “hype” DPs rather than “field” or “asset” DPs.

On the plus side: well, obviously, the “hype” hires in fact do bring some attention to the league. If a United or Everton fan decides to watch when a Rooney signs, or if a Chelsea fan decided to watch because of Lampard, that’s clearly a plus. I mean, hell, it’s hard to argue with the flavor of attention Ibrahimović has brought to the Galaxy. Second, some argue that these players can serve as teachers for the younger generation of player and bring a higher sense of play and professionalism to the team. Third, while some of these players have not made a huge impact, the fact of the matter is that most of them can still flat out play at a high level.

They do improve the game.

The words of DC United defender Steve Birnbaum on Rooney: “He’s changed everything. I think he’s changed the culture of this club. The work ethic that he puts in in practice and you guys see it in the games, but he’s the type of guy who just wants to win at all costs. Guys want to play for him. They want to show him that they’re putting in the work just the same as he is. We have this sort of confidence or swag going into games because of him.”

That’s worth paying for.

So, I’ve had to change my mind a little. While I still maintain that “field” players or “asset” players are my favored routes for DPs, there is no reason a “hype” play can’t also be a “field” player, and there are numerous examples, more than I used to want to admit. Indeed, my fear of the “sunset league” label made me somewhat blind to that fact “hype” and “field” are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

So, now I’m thinking of Nashville and our future roster. And just who could serve the type of role Rooney has served for DC.


This article is an opinion pieces. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Speedway Soccer as a whole.

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