Cheers, Gerrard. We hardly knew you (No, seriously we really do not know how to assess your MLS career).
It seems that there are two ways that a superstar footballer ends their career: a bang or a whimper. Either they go out in a blaze of glory or they just kind of fade into the background. There really does not seem to be much separating success or failure for those that could be considered at one point or another one of the top players of the game.
Steven Gerrard fits that bill perfectly. Last Sunday the former Liverpool midfielder played his final game for the Los Angeles Galaxy and quite possibly his final professional club game. Although Gerrard played admirably in his final match against the Colorado Rapids, logging 44 minutes scoring the Galaxy’s lone goal in the penalty kick shootout, the end was anti-climactic. No title. No last bit of glory. Just the end.
Now normally in these circumstances those who follow Major League Soccer begin the water cooler or pub discussion of the player’s value. Those reading this article who follow league will be intimately familiar with this line of thinking. Thoughts of the player’s value on and off the pitch are evaluated, scrutinized, evaluated, and scrutinized.
Attendance numbers and television ratings are dissected to determine how many butts the player puts in seats and how many people they are responsible for bringing in front of the television. At a certain point the player is either labeled as a success or a failure. Then the real debate begins.
While for some players it has been pretty crystal clear how well they performed in the league (Lotthar Matthaus-failure; David Beckham-success) Gerrard is a very different story. His numbers weren’t exactly the best (just five goals and 14 assists in 34 appearances) they weren’t terrible either.
The Galaxy also did not win an MLS Cup during his tenure, but they did make the playoffs twice and were one of the better sides in the league in 2015 and 2016. He didn’t have a great career with the Galaxy and MLS but he also didn’t have the worst career for a Designated Player. It was just…okay.
Gerrard’s statement through the Galaxy seems to nail his tenure perfectly: it was a disappointment, but not a bad experience. In his statement he said:
"I am of course disappointed to have not achieved that objective, but I can look back at my time at the club with pride at what we accomplished, including two straight playoff appearances and countless memorable moments on the pitch. As someone who spent the whole of their career in Liverpool, it has been an incredible experience to come to Los Angeles and play for the LA Galaxy."
As opposed to other Designated Players in the past there weren’t really any dust ups with teammates or the media. Nor were there any moments where it seemed like he wasn’t at least interested in putting in his best effort. Nor were there any moments where it seemed as if his interest was playing with another club. The Galaxy certainly did not have an issue on the level of those facing the Montreal Impact and NYCFC in dealing with Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard.
On the pitch, he always seemed to give his best effort even if time and injuries had taken away most of the skills that made him so respected in his prime. There may have been moments late in matches where it was clear that he didn’t have the stamina to go a full ninety minutes. But he was never the chief reason for the Galaxy’s shortcomings. He never really hurt the team, but he wasn’t exactly a player that was consistent either.
Gerrard’s situation highlights one of the many issues with the Designated Player system. In theory, players of Gerrard’s pedigree and background should automatically succeed in MLS. But in practice the transition isn’t always smooth and success is not a given.
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The difference in style, the travel, and the level of play are very different from anywhere else in the world. That many of these players are coming in during the twilight of their career doesn’t help either. MLS might not be the Premier League or La Liga but it is also not Sunday league.
In the end history will probably look upon Gerrard’s tenure in a mostly positive light. He didn’t exactly light the league on fire, but he wasn’t a failure either. His presence didn’t light up the television ratings, but he did seem to attract interest from casual supporters. Considering some of the other spectacular DP failures in MLS history Gerrard will get a pass on this one.