In the past week, Toronto FC signed two of the most expensive players in MLS history. Each player has scored memorable goals for their country in major tournaments and each saw their playing time fade before switching over to North America's top league, which tends to precede the arrival of big MLS signings. But for all their similarities as pricy Designated Players, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore illustrate the great tension between MLS' past and its future.
It's telling that Altidore's signing has received more headlines than Giovinco's, despite Altidore being an inconsequential player most of his club career. This is one symptom of the fact that, while MLS has certainly progressed since its inception 20 years ago, the league still carries itself like it's 1994.
In Toronto, Altidore will be paid like a star, covered like a star, and may even produce like a star, but if he couldn't hack it in England or anywhere besides the Eredivisie, is he really a star? The striker has a solid record for the national team, a team built to play to his talents, but there is no evidence that he's the star MLS is pitching him as. Because Altidore has only thrived for the United States or in the United States, there is an easy tendency to circle the wagons and transfer blame to coaches and teams for not understanding how to use him. Criticism falls everywhere but on him and you get an echo chamber where Altidore's on-field contributions (or lack thereof) become almost irrelevant to Jozy Altidore: Soccer Star/American Hero. Misused as he was at Sunderland, his stellar goal record for AZ (51 in 93 games) isn't proof that he's some misunderstood genius.
Sebastian Giovinco, on the other hand, is a player. He thrived in Juventus' youth setup and enjoyed successful loans at Empoli and Parma before settling back into life with the first team. Giovinco played in Euro 2012 and scored the winner against Japan in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Between 29 Champions League appearances and 21 senior caps for Italy, all by age 27, Giovinco has proven himself to be a quality attacking midfielder in his prime.
He's also the type of player MLS should be trying to attract. Unfortunately, while MLS teams offer safe harbor to old stars looking for a sunset, they haven't been able to compete for quality players in their prime before. Frank Lampard was only a realistic MLS option until it became clear he could still play at the EPL level. Once he established himself at Manchester City, MLS seemed like a waste of his talent. In the wake of his contract debacle, it's become clear to MLS observers that the league is perceived as a retirement home by the soccer world's upper echelon.
That perception isn't quite correct--MLS is a deceptively fun league--but it's still important. To buck that nagging reputation, MLS teams need to sign more international caliber players like Giovinco, Diego Valeri, or Fabian Castillo. The biggest obstacle to players of that tier signing with MLS is MLS itself. Due to arcane regulations designed for parity's sake, players don't get to sign with individual teams; they must sign with MLS and then be allocated to a team. In the late 90s when soccer was a lot smaller, this rule made sense. But MLS fanbases are no longer fledgling groups ready to cut bait should their respective teams sink into mediocrity.
Now, each club has an ultras section and eight teams averaged over 20,000 fans last year, while every team but one averaged over 15,000. Survival is no longer an uncertain bet. The fan culture MLS hoped for has arrived, but the league itself is lagging behind. If byzantine player movement regulations were loosened, MLS would instantly be a more enticing destination. Parity is good in theory, but an unfettered arms race between LAFC and the Galaxy would be far more interesting--La Liga's top-heavy structure is an obvious example, but any great league has its recurring juggernauts.
The forced parity is made all the more frustrating by the fact that MLS is a rapidly growing league run like one that faces fiscal death every morning. In order to realize its promise as a competitive league, MLS needs to modernize and ditch the cloak-and-dagger tendencies that they have clung to since MLS' survival was more pertinent than the shape the league took.
Sure, the USMNT stars flocking back to American shores improve MLS' standard of play, but to what end? While Jozy Altidore and Brek Shea make for easy marketing, returnees who flamed out in better leagues are about as important as old-ass stars taking a victory lap. A higher level of play raises all boats, but if the development of American players only results in them sticking around MLS and never taking the leap to Europe, the progress is circular. The stardom they'll enjoy will be contrived, a product of the league's self-imposed constraints and fears.
If MLS is to attract more Giovincos and give up on inventing Altidores, it will have to start acting like a league that's been around for 20 years.