MLS has long been derided as a retirement home for aging stars. But some young English players are choosing to kickstart their careers in the States
Over the last decade, Major League Soccer has attracted its fair share of British footballers. Since the leagues watershed moment with David Beckhams acquisition, the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Jermain Defoe and Ashley Cole have taken their talents to North America.
Of course, they all had one thing in common: their careers were in their twilight years when they made the move to MLS. It took a few years for Beckhams superstar sheen to settle down enough for him to play quality football. Gerrard struggled to adapt to the league after his love affair with Liverpool. Lampard notoriously had his New York City FC debut delayed by over six months due to a stint with Manchester City and nagging injuries. Defoe arrived over the age of 30 and didnt stick around long, while Cole had declined a previous LA Galaxy offer, saying that he wasnt ready to relax on a beach yet.
While each had their own issues, they did make other English players take notice of MLS. There will always be aging players who sign with MLS sides for a late-career adventure (though, the fact that every MLS team declined to pursue John Terry this summer seems to signal a change in philosophy). But in their wake has come a crop of young Englishmen, keen to start rather than end their careers on the other side of the pond.
Three young Brits begin to tell a story of the American leagues appeal, and they all share a name. The most famous example is Jack Harrison, who left the Manchester United academy in 2010 for Massachusetts. Picked first overall in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, Harrison has held his own alongside the likes of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Lampard at New York City FC.
Jack Barmbys route to MLS was entirely different. The son of the former England international Nick Barmby, Jack started his career at Manchester United before a move to Leicester City in 2014. However, he failed to get first-team minutes with the Foxes, going on loan to Rotherham United and Notts County in consecutive seasons. Once January 2016 rolled around, Leicester had another idea for their young attacker.
Leicester were great with me, Barmby, a former England youth international, tells the Guardian. They found out I had an opportunity to play in the MLS and I said I was very interested. They didnt stand in the way at all and helped in getting the deal done. Portland stood out because I knew they won the league [in 2015]. I knew a little bit about their fans and Timber Joey. The club looked like they had a good passion for the game so I thought why not try something different?
The loan stint was so successful that Barmby accepted a permanent move to the Timbers ahead of the 2017 season. While he admits it took some getting used to a new country at first, its very quickly become a second home.
I think getting used to it at first was pretty easy for a young person like myself. There is a little bit of traveling but everything is much more professional than expected, he says. Sure, its hard being away from family sometimes but I think without a doubt in the long run its well worth it.
While Barmby first came to the States temporarily, midfielder Jack Blake saw it as a way to rebuild his career entirely. Blake was a scholar at Nottingham Forest and pushing for a first-team deal. However, a knee injury and a coaching change scuppered a chance at a senior contract, leaving him with a difficult choice for his next step.
I was quite angry with what happened at Forest. I knew that I had the ability to play at a good level, he says. It was that belief that carried me through. My grandfather lives in Arizona, so I came up with this elaborate plan: Id bring my boots out, use that as a base to recover, and go on trials from there.
Blake was able to land a trial with Minnesota United, coached at the time by compatriot Carl Craig. With Minnesota then in the lower division NASL, Blake impressed enough in his half-season to land a contract with Jacksonville Armada. The Armada are coached by Mark Lowry and their technical director is Nathan Walter both Englishmen.
Id heard of the New York Cosmos, but I had no idea they were in the NASL. The lower leagues here were a mystery to me at first. Its a tough one. I know the lower leagues in England, and theyre not pretty. Its very physical. Theres less technical ability in the league, and knowing my technical ability had held me strong throughout my career, it just wasnt really a fit. When I came over here, I was blown away by the standard.
Both Barmby and Blake say several former team-mates have peppered them with questions about the North American leagues.
As MLS has grown, its reputation has been coming over to England, Blake noted. I keep in touch with a few players at Forest, and theyre fully aware of whats going on over here.
While Barmby and Blake were able to join up with professional teams, another wave of young English players are trying their hand at the route laid out by Harrison. Players cut at the under-18 and under-19 levels in the UK are now weighing the option of college soccer in the States. One company, Vertex Soccer, tries to help show these scholars that its a viable option. Executive director Sam Craven believes its an important niche to be filled.
The FA asks every club to prove that theyve provided an exit strategy for players that they wont be signing, says Craven. One of those will be American soccer scholarships. We go into category one and category two academies around December, when decisions are being made. We just present the facts of college soccer.
Craven, a former Notts County scholar, played with the senior side as well as with clubs in the USL, another lower league in the States. With Vertex, hes helping to show unsigned academy prospects that theres another way to get their career going. Amidst the uncertainty of the lower leagues in both America and England, he sees college soccer as a sure thing.