Ridley Drive in the Delco suburb of Wallingford is an unlikely home for a professional sports team. A sleepy cul-de-sac off the main road, it’s flanked on one side by a row of two-story brick houses, on the other by what appears to be a cow pasture. About a hundred yards after the turnoff, a small yellow sign warns: “Slow: Children at Play.” On a brisk Tuesday morning in March, the sign assumes a double meaning.
Over on the pasture—which turns out to be the practice field of the Philadelphia Union, the city’s 3-year-old Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise—16-year-old Zach Pfeffer struggles to free himself for a shot in a five-on-five scrimage. Staring him down in goal is fellow rookie, 19-year-old Zac MacMath. Off beyond the sideline doing calisthenics with the rest of the squad is another rookie, 21-year-old Ryan Richter, a La Salle guy.
These young men represent the new faces of MLS, a league that’s gone through nearly as many incarnations as it has seasons.
When it opened for business in 1996, MLS was hailed as the Zion of the exiled American stars who’d long been forced to toil in distant lands. National team icons like John Harkes and Tab Ramos flocked home from Europe to kick off a new era in American soccer.
Next came the MLS-as-international-retirement-home phase. Washed-up greats like German legend Lothar Matthaus and Mexican striker Luis Hernández arrived to great acclaim, only to disappoint fans with underwhelming performances and a distinct lack of interest.
After that, a surge of young American talent—DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu—gave the league a much needed, albeit temporary, shot in the arm.
Then, in 2007, the David Beckham era. The English megastar signed a five-year, $250 million deal to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy. To reconcile Beckham’s $6.5 million annual salary (the rest comes from endorsements) with its $2.1 million salary cap, MLS introduced the Designated Player (DP) rule, which allowed each club to sign one player at an unlimited salary with only the first $400,000 counting against the cap.
Beckham’s arrival triggered frenzied speculation about an impending influx of expensive international stars. It hasn’t happened. Although MLS clubs have landed some marquee talents under the DP rule, including French striker Thierry Henry and Mexican and former Barcelona defender Rafa Marquez, they have been few and far in between. Only two Designated Players have been brought in for the new season, and the majority of the league’s 18 teams don’t have any.
It turns out the coming of the Beckham era was a mirage. Instead, his four years in America have witnessed MLS’ evolution into its latest—and perhaps most lasting—incarnation as a home for up-and-coming talent. Young players, many still in their teens, now command a sizeable share of just about every club’s roster, and a number are rapidly emerging as full-fledged stars. Last season’s rookie of the year, Andy Najar of D.C. United, was 17 when he won the award.
Fittingly, the biggest story of the new season’s first weeks has been the New York Red Bulls’ 18-year-old striker, Juan Agudelo. A product of the club’s youth system, Agudelo bagged the winner in the Red Bulls’ 1-0 victory over Seattle in Week One. Several days later, he equalized for the U.S. national team in its 1-1 draw with Argentina.