David Villa. Remember him? He's the former Valencia and Barcelona striker who left Atletico Madrid to retire in the United States with MLS side New York City FC. Except, that is not what he did. Sure, he moved to Major League Soccer in the latter years of his career, but he has done anything but retire in the U.S.
Spain's all-time top goalscorer has been immense in MLS, scoring 65 goals in 98 games, which earned him a recall to the international team after a three-year absence. La Roja manager Julen Lopetegui is just another top football personality coming to realise that MLS has a lot to offer and has moved on from the days when aging European players could sleepwalk through games and pick up a good salary while living in the sunshine.
The weekend after Thanksgiving, the wife of Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski revealed the couple's desire to move to Los Angeles, where the Poland international could end his career while Anna would expand her food business.
"We dream of Los Angeles. That's where we want to develop our brands," Anna Lewandowska told Business Insider Poland. "We hope Robert will end his career at a club in Los Angeles and we can say it would be our dream."
But MLS in 2017 and 2018 is a lot different from the league's early days, when the likes of Jorge Campos and Carlos Valderrama were as much marketing tools as football players. David Beckham's move to MLS 10 years ago was just the beginning, with the England international joining the LA Galaxy on the back of a La Liga title win with Real Madrid, with the Spanish giants keen to keep hold of the former Manchester United star rather than let him move to America.
"The success Beckham brought to MLS, nobody can deny that," FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo told Goal. "He changed the game in the United States as a player and what he represents as a gentleman on and off the field. He gave us a push like nobody ever did before, and we will always be grateful for what he did.
"But right now, the direction is different. The league is recognised worldwide. In the next couple of years, it can become one of the best five leagues in the world."
Clavijo is at the forefront of Dallas' vision of developing the club's own talent and bringing in young international players rather than signing aged former stars. Under his guidance, the Texas franchise has become one of the league's strongest teams, and boasted the most homegrown players in any MLS squad this season. Dallas's two designated players (DPs) are occupied by 22-year-old Ecuador international Carlos Gruezo and 23-year-old Paraguayan forward Cristian Colman — a stark contrast to previous years when these spots would have been saved for veterans on inflated wages.
Dallas' approach brought the club U.S. Open Cup success in 2016, and saw FCD reach the semifinal of the CONCACAF Champions League earlier this year. Success of teams that have moved away from the traditional marquee signing model has also begun to shape some of the more marketing-driven teams, with the Galaxy signing younger DPs in Mexico's Dos Santos brothers and 28-year-old former Marseille winger Romain Alessandrini. After Beckham and Robbie Keane flourished in Los Angeles, the Galaxy learned that big-name signings sold jerseys but did not always produce results.
"Steven Gerrard, when he came into the league a few years ago, said it himself: If anyone comes here to retire, they need to think again," Clavijo said. "You need to come here to work. The league is difficult. It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different in many ways: altitude, turf, distances, playing in different countries like Canada, it is difficult.
"If someone wants to come to my team with the intention of retiring, with the greatest of respect to their career, we only want players who come to play. The future of MLS is in younger players. Even Beckham came to play. Villa, [Sebastian] Giovinco, they're unbelievable, they came here to play. The guys who came in like Robbie Keane came to win. That is the type of player we welcome. Having someone like Villa who comes to play, as a younger player is amazing — you learn so much from playing with these types of professionals."
After scoring 17 goals for Toronto this season, Italian forward Giovinco went one better than last season by winning the MLS Cup. Toronto finished as runners-up to the Seattle Sounders last year, but recorded a 2-0 win to lift the trophy on Saturday. Giovinco came up against Nicolas Lodeiro, who recently helped Uruguay qualify for the World Cup. There, he could easily face Spain and Villa in the round of 16.
Neither side in the biggest game of the MLS season contains a player who is just in America to retire. That's no longer what the league is about: "Some of those players like Lewandowski are amazing players with great careers. But when you're talking about retiring, pick another league," Clavijo insisted.
"This league is not for retiring. This is to prove yourself. If you are a professional who has had a great career, this is not somewhere to retire. You have to come here to compete. The competition is stiff, the competition is hard. Some teams may accept it [signing potential retirees], but the majority will not. This will keep adding so soon nobody will come here to retire."