MLS: an old-folks’ home or a youth camp?

This week’s signing of legendary 37-year-old French midfielder Youri Djorkaeff (pronounced dork-eye-eff) with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars will raise a question plaguing Major League Soccer since its inception: Is MLS an old-folks’ home, or a youth camp? Cases can be made for either.

Nevermind that Djorkaeff had a long, illustrious career, capped by winning a World Cup in 1998 with France. Forget that Djorkaeff went from Italian giant Inter Milan (1996-99) to so-so Bolton Wanderers (England, 2002-04) to English club Blackburn.

In short, his stock has dropped like a lead balloon.

Djorkaeff has been trying for years to come to America, according to his agent/brother, Denis. Because the MLS has long enjoyed a reputation as an old folks’ home, nobody doubts it one bit.

The brothers Djorkaeff were first in a bidding war with Bolton in 2001, attempting to get to MLS. But the MetroStars “couldn’t compete with the money Bolton were offering the player,” according to Metros GM Nick Saciewicz. This year, Blackburn finally granted Djorkaeff a release at the end of his career. He will have a one-year contract with the Metros, with a buyout option thereafter.

Djorkaeff is not the only star past his prime to dip his cleats into the lush, green artificial turf of NFL stadiums. The great Pele did it with the NASL New York Cosmos in the 1970s. Surrounding him were German Franz Beckenbauer, and others in their 30s.

But the NASL threw gobs of money at its stars, as opposed to MLS, which doesn’t. The MLS, by comparison, has had a better financial structure (only two teams have folded in its 10-year existence as opposed to the NASL, which lost 17 teams in 16 years between 1968-1984).

Several recent examples of the old folks’ home argument are Polish hero Peter Nowak (now D.C. United’s coach), who played during the Chicago Fire’s first season, and flashy Colombian Carlos Valderrama, with the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny. Both had success in MLS in their 30s, garnering several All-Star honors and Nowak himself hoisted an MLS Cup above da’ Bears’ Soldier Field.

The average age of an MLS player is 25.45 years. By comparison, the average age on expansion team CD Chivas USA is 28, thanks in part to a bunch of Chivas CD Guadalajara veterans.

Every able-bodied MLS analyst thinks these oldsters can win the MLS Cup this year. They are going on the short-term plan that Chicago had: Add a slew of veterans to the roster, and win a championship.

As for the youth-camp argument, shoemakers Nike and Adidas have contributed to an influx of young players who entered MLS under the auspices of two developmental programs: first the Project 40 program, and now the Generation: Adidas program. So much so that Nike contributed millions in 1997 to start Project-40.

That program, in turn, has produced more than 80 players for MLS in eight years. Adidas just committed $150 million in a 10-year deal with MLS that includes sponsorships and a new developmental program, which will also feature a league for MLS reserves.

College and lower-level professional players are also making MLS rosters. More than 80 percent of the players selected in this year’s MLS SuperDraft were from U.S. colleges.

The IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., also helped start U.S. elite soccer training for stars like Howard, Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley.

All three are now in Europe, commanding millions as role players on their teams. Donovan even played the final 30 minutes for German club Bayer Leverkusen this week in a crucial UEFA Champions League match.

More are surely to come, as players rise through the MLS ranks and become well-known commodities here, only to become blips on stat sheets overseas.

MLS is hopeful they’ll reverse the long-standing trend of its stars sticking around for a few seasons before leaving for the lush, green, real soccer fields of Europe.

It will take soccer-specific stadiums, crazed hooligans and a culture predicated on the world’s game in this country.

It will take fight songs, and battles in crowded stadiums that stand the test of time.

It will take more than gobs of money as was done in the old NASL days.

It may take a miracle.

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