It was, all in all, a night that raised a giant middle finger at our preconceived notions of what MLS should, and more importantly shouldn’t, look like.
Sunday night’s New York City FC home opener at Yankee Stadium was supposed to be everything MLS isn’t supposed to be anymore – if that makes sense. It was all wrong; a team built around aging European stars playing in a non-soccer-specific venue. Yankee Stadium was supposed to be the worst possible place to play for MLS, which was supposed to have grown past squeezing fields into ill-fitting stadiums.
What it was, instead, was a triumphant night, with a packed and loud and intense crowd, demonstrating that MLS success isn’t an exact science anymore. There is no longer a strict formula that must be adhered to, some recipe for making a club viable in a vast and inhospitable anti-soccer wilderness. America kinda likes soccer now. So it’s sort of okay if the conditions aren’t perfect. People will come anyway.
What it also was: a refutation to our aversion to MLS being a “retirement league.” Because there was David Villa. And David Villa was magnificent.
Villa, too, was supposed to represent two steps backward for a step taken forward. I myself have argued several times that growth for MLS would be to eschew this sort of player, tempted to come over only when more appealing options in Europe have dried up. I’ve written that, while the David Villas – and David Beckhams, Thierry Henrys, and [Insert other Big Important Soccer Name here] – certainly have their utility as role models for young American players and as marketing tools, the next step for MLS is to invest that money in attracting younger talent. Talent that can be developed and sold for a profit, while elevating the league’s level and reputation – for being the home of players before their primes, not after it – in the process.
On Sunday night, I think I changed my mind. Being a retirement league isn’t such a bad thing. Because David Villa.
In the 2-0 win over the New England Revolution, Villa scored a goal and got the assist that did all the work for Patrick Mullins on the second goal. He could, frankly, have had a handful of tallies, because he wasn’t entirely sharp on his finishing. But he did so much more than score and set up the goals.
He entertained. He dazzled. He gave all those people who had poured into a baseball stadium on a cold and gusty night a reason to come back in two weeks, and to keep coming back for years.
With his step-overs and accelerations and tomfoolery on the ball, totally embarrassing defenders at times, he gave those who might be new to soccer – and I have the strong impression that there were many of them – something universally comprehensible to watch. He was, plainly, the best player on the field by far.
Head coach Jason Kreis, who isn’t one for gushing over his own players, had all kinds of feels for Villa, who has scored 15 more goals for the Spanish national team than any other man. “I know that he’s an incredibly talented player; I know he’s an incredibly smart player,” said Kreis following the game. “And he’s not shy of working hard. So for me, he’s the exact type of player that will be incredibly successful in this league.”
Villa has been impressing especially during practice, apparently, demonstrating that he isn’t the sort of aging star who has come here intent on half-assing the job. (In fairness, it’s been quite some time since MLS has attracted that sort of player. This suggests it has either improved to a point where you just can’t afford to slough off anymore, or has learned the hard way to ferret out premeditated laziness.) “I don’t know that I’ve gone through a week of training and not seen David sharp,” said Ned Grabavoy, who exchanged the give-and-go pass that opened Villa up for his goal. That, more than the fact that he’s won the Champions League, the Euros and the World Cup, is probably the reason Kreis made him the captain.
Villa is 33, but he hasn’t fallen off much from his prime. Just last season he scored 13 league goals for Atlético Madrid – more than he had in each of his last two years with Barcelona – as it won La Liga and finished runner-up in the Champions League.
He is still a difference maker. On the field and at the turnstiles. The notion that teams should pass up that sort of player just because they have huge reputations and are on the wrong side of 30 is rather silly. The only caveat here is that the sizable investment – a Villa-type player typically runs MLS $5 million a year and up – shouldn’t come at the expense of the development of American talent.
New York City FC certainly seems intent on building a serious youth academy. Many other clubs have already done so, while paying top dollar for some premier names. The Los Angeles Galaxy are perhaps the front-runners in this regard, luring bona fide stars while developing potential future U.S. national teamers. As long as that balance is maintained, MLS can’t possibly have enough David Villas.