The world of Major League Soccer has divided opinion, but there’s some real nostalgia and quality to be found in certain early-era MLS shirts. Particularly as they speak to either the beginning of a new franchise within the competition, or the sudden re-emergence of the sport as a whole on the other side of the Atlantic. And collectors seem to feel the same way.
How did the MLS start?
In truth, soccer in America has an odd, chequered history.
Such that multiple scripts have been written of the issues (to varying degrees of certainty) as to why they arose, and what ultimately led to its numerous false starts.
My favourite account is by Ian Plenderleith titled: ‘Rock and Roll Soccer’. In which, he reminds the reader of the classic failure that was the North American Soccer League (NASL) – now known as the unofficial precursor to what we call the ‘MLS’.
But before that could happen, American investors needed solid grounding to raise this fallen institution from the ashes. Thankfully, USA ‘94 and Japan/Korea ‘02 came about.
The bid for the 1994 World Cup was founded in America’s promise to FIFA and the other confederations that hosting it would light the torch for a proper football effort in the region by the host nation. They tried, and slightly failed once more. But an unlikely quarter-final journey by the US National Team in Japan and Korea 8 years later aroused the bidders once more.
Then came the appropriate infrastructural investment that was necessary for long-term growth, and the pivotal introduction of the Designated Player Rule. A simple doctrine which allowed (though albeit limited) the amount of foreign players that could enter the league.
Four of whom have been lucky enough to make it onto our all-important list.
What are the Most Valuable MLS Shirts?
These players have a number of things in common.
Firstly, that they were ‘foreigners’ travelling through hell or high water to get to ‘the promised land’ that was the United States of America via that heralded Designated Player Rule.
But also, that their arrivals seemed to coincide with the development of a new franchise with ambitions to take the Eastern or Western Conference by storm. And to generate that buzz and excitement, the franchises needed a big name, which rarely ever disappointed.
In other words, these guys sold a heck of a lot of MLS shirts. Beginning with:
Thierry Henry at New York Red Bulls (2010-14)
Has there ever been a cooler football player than Thierry Henry?
Honestly, I don’t think there has nor will there ever be.
Making his name in the centre forward’s position at Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, the precocious winger-cum ‘Invincible’ Hall of Famer dazzled fans the world over with his ballet-like strides through the grass before effortlessly converting his opportunities.
So prolific was his time in the Arsenal red, that it was difficult to envisage a colourway that would suit him. Unfortunately for the club (depending on how you want to see it), their decision to move to the Emirates opened the exit door. Whereupon he moved to FC Barcelona to seek the Champions League crown and was left unemployed again in 2010.
Joining the New York Red Bulls brand in the States (which was working through a conglomerate of regions around Europe at the time), Thierry Henry became their official MLS poster-boy tasked with bringing as much commercial and on-pitch success as possible.
His dwindling physical attributes rendered his football input to a moment-by-mate rate opposing the profound consistency with which he became known in the prior years.
But to fans of the New York club, he’ll forever remain a club legend. And joins a long, proud list of legendary strikers to live ‘The American Dream’. With one of the loveliest colour-ways of all the MLS shirts on this list to add to it all.
David Villa at New York City FC
Now here’s a man who deserves far more credit than what he’s given.
Perhaps falling under the radar during a possession-based era for Spanish football, it’s easy to overlook pure, thoroughbred finishers like the incredible David Villa.
He and other strikers like Fernando Torres for example, weren’t tasked with ‘leading from the front’ for teams with midfields the Spaniards were able to breed from this period, and individualism seemed to kick in when they moved away from Spain.
Torres was a very good prospect for Atletico Madrid, but turned into a demon in Liverpool. Villa was incredible for Valencia and Barcelona, and became an icon in New York.
Ironically, he seemed to pick his moments almost in direct antipathy for Thierry Henry. Not only did he arrive in Catalunya the year he left for the States, but he came to the same state in a different veil the calendar year after Thierry waved goodbye to the game altogether.
Four years and a typically consistent goal-to-game record later, and Villa is remembered very fondly in the sky blue of New York City FC – part of the City Football Group.
The way City fans are wired nowadays, even they might want a piece of Villa history. Most of them might not even be aware that New York City produce MLS shirts, and not their own!
Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Los Angeles Galaxy
Now here’s a man who divides opinion, am I right?
It’s almost as if he was destined to be a relic in the annals of American ‘soccer’.
Coming off the back of a successful stint with a largely unsuccessful Manchester United team, it seemed as if it was finally time for Zlatan to settle down in the MLS.
But being ‘Zlatan’, he couldn’t do so without making an almighty splash.
In his typical ‘I’ll do what I want’ style, he took out a page in the Los Angeles Times to introduce himself to his new fans in LA. Though instead of some long-winded approximation of how he was going to repay their support, his note simply read: ‘Los Angeles, you’re welcome’. In hindsight, that was the perfect message.
After marking his debut with a substitute 40-yard screamer in the inaugural ‘El Trafico’ derby against the newly-formed Los Angeles FC, Zlatan went from strength to strength.
He was given the Galaxy captaincy by the start of 2019 and led them to the MLS Cup Play-Offs before signing off with over 50 goals across two years in Major League Soccer.
Zlatan then made another idiosyncratic declaration to mark his departure:
“You wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues…Now go back to watch baseball.”Zlatan Ibrahimovic via Twitter in December 2019
Altogether, Zlatan represents the ideal ‘collectable’ figure for American soccer. Plus, his MLS shirts have a great deal of variety value to them as well. Whether it be that classic white and blue number, or the ‘away’ black and gold LA Galaxy jersey, that emblazoned ‘Ibrahimovic’ name brings it all together.
A breadth of specificities that no other player has matched, a number of moments his fans will remember forever and a level of recognition almost like no other in the history of the Galaxy.
Well, when I say, ‘almost’ like no other …
David Beckham at Los Angeles Galaxy
We couldn’t have a list like this without including the great David Beckham.
It’s tough to think where soccer would be without his influence.
A man who will go down in history as one of (if not the most) marketable assets the game has ever seen, Beckham made an almighty splash when he decided to move to the MLS.
Not only was he leaving Real Madrid for the honour, but Major League Soccer was nowhere near as set-up, nor sophisticated as it was presented today. It was like taking the first commercial flight across the Atlantic before it was normal. A big story but a huge risk.
At the time, Beckham was beguiled for what the wider community deemed ‘the easy way’ to bow out from a great career, which still had time on the clock at only 32 years old.
But true to form, David Beckham was ahead of the game.
Football has always taken an influence from the American adaptation of sports marketing and he realised that, if done correctly, soccer had the potential to expand beyond the confines of its predecessors. But it needed: attention, investment and quality.
Three things that the names and boots of ‘David Beckham’ could provide in abundance. And although there was a tough teething period for the Englishman, he achieved that.
Major League Soccer will always trace its lineage of success back to that press conference where the ‘Beckham-23’ nameset were emblazoned on that shiny-new Herbalife-sponsored LA Galaxy kit. And there hasn’t ever been a jersey more iconic than this one.
It also helps the value (but not the search), that there’s been a historical issue with that Herbalife sponsor sticking to the shirt after washes. So, finding good-conditioned Beckham MLS shirts is like finding a needle in a haystack, but when you do – it’s time to cash in!
The MLS is still in its relative infancy compared to other organisations.
But its cult appeal worldwide and die-hard focus at home represents a great deal of value to a wide batch of supporters if it’s aligned with the right player. This is something we spoke about previously in our Premier League Cult Heroes piece from a few days ago.
With that Designated Player Rule, it’s easy to find out who these figures would be, and usually they have a great deal of influence on their team – some of whom aren’t even on this list, but would be well worth collecting to boost your Major League Soccer collection.
Think: Carlos Vela at LAFC or Kaka at Orlando City SC – one made their name for their new club and the other had a name already and brought it over with all its luxuries.
Both will incite memories, and are designed well – the prerequisite for demand.
Do you have any MLS shirts already added to your collection?