Will MLS favor youth over aging stars?

The Beckham Era ended the way it started.

There was pomp. And there was circumstance.

And what Saturday’s MLS Cup 2012 between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Houston Dynamo lacked in quality, it compensated for in entertainment as the 3-1 outcome provided satisfying closure for the league’s grand bargain with Galaxy star David Beckham.

The game’s vibrant atmosphere, national profile and unwieldy pack of some 400 reporters confirmed that with 17 seasons in the books, Major League Soccer has grown and stabilized to the point where it is no longer in perpetual survival mode, however poor television ratings may continue to be.

This is to the credit of a prudent, slow-growth business model and a willingness to adjust on the fly, accepting that the initially targeted demographics were largely uninterested and embracing other, unexpected ones that grew to love the league organically. And this is, of course, to the credit of Beckham’s tenure.

But such is MLS’s solidity these days that commissioner Don Garber said on the eve of Beckham’s final game in the league that it no longer really needs such star power to attain relevance.

He’s probably right about that. It seems the more that big names are willing to come stateside, the less MLS needs them. Kinda like Groucho Marx said: “I don’t care to be part of any club that would have me as a member.” Only in reverse.

And that poses an important question for the future of MLS as its post-Beckham days dawn.

Now that it’s no longer “that place where David Beckham and some other big names play,” what should it be?

Major League Soccer is at a crossroads. Some have called its current iteration MLS 2.0, distinguishing these latest boom years from the preceding troubled period, when contraction occurred, and there was even talk of folding. So what should 3.0 look like?

The league can go back down the road of finding superstars who are willing to be squeezed for a last few drops of glory in exchange for more money than their teammates make combined, and well-known names forever swirl – Frank Lampard, Kaka or Wesley Sneijder. Or MLS can focus on finding good young international players from the Western Hemisphere and use them to augment the level of play. Or it can focus on youth development and try to use the US national team as a showcase for its homegrown players, as a proxy for its success.

It has to choose. It can’t be all things to all people. There’s a natural selection at work in the hierarchy of soccer leagues. Some eat; most are eaten. In order to be a great league, the stated objective, MLS has to be a feeder league first. And it can’t be that until it gets over the notion that players whose names are already forged will offer a shortcut to respectability.

Yet MLS doesn’t appear willing to choose just yet. In his recent state of the league comments, Garber said he believed that there “there will be another great soccer player who will surprise people by coming to MLS the way Beckham surprised.” But he also said that MLS was investing heavily in youth development and considering a rule like the Mexican league’s, whereby a minimum of American homegrown players would have to be fielded at all times. And he said MLS is setting up more outposts like the one it has in South America to facilitate the signing of players in undervalued markets around the world.

In other words, MLS plans to continue to take all three approaches.

This is a mistake. Aging stars are no longer the way to go. For one, MLS will have to compete with newly rich leagues in emerging markets like China, Russia and Brazil and have to overpay even more to land them. And secondly, the product has matured past the point where big names can offer an injection of credibility. Failing that, it’s just wasted money. Instead, MLS should be making its own names, building brands itself.

I put the question to Dominic Kinnear, reacher of four MLS Cups in seven years with the Dynamo (and its puny payroll) and, in my view, the single-most gifted builder of both rosters and teams in MLS – without ever signing world-famous Designated Players, mind, but relying instead on regional talent and internally developed players. After chuckling at my weird question about the three options and pointing out that he isn’t the commissioner, Kinnear seemed to agree.

“Right now, the league is a mixture of all three,” he said. “I think the college game and bringing players through the academies is very important and I also think bringing in sometimes relatively unknown young players with potential [from abroad] is an option. I think the age of aging superstars has happened and is in the past so I think that’s not going to happen so much anymore as it’s such a gamble. I think the first two is what I hope the league will focus on. I think that’s what the fans are going to want. They’re going to want to see good football and they’ll want to be surprised sometimes with the players coming through.”

The biggest legacy of the Beckham Era is that another such era is obsolete.