Why English footballers are making the switch to MLS

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After the close of MLS’ summer transfer window, there are now 22 players born in England who ply their trade Stateside.

That number ranks England as the second largest exporter of talent to Major League Soccer. Argentina currently leads the way with 26 - however, that could soon change if the English influx continues. 

Shaun Wright-Phillips was the latest Englishman to put pen to paper in June, sealing a deal which sees him link up with his younger brother Bradley - MLS’ joint highest ever goalscorer in a single season in 2014.

Aside from the fact language is not an issue, why do so many English players in the post-Beckham era decide a move to MLS is better than continuing a career in England? We pick out some key factors…

Englishmen in MLS

Giles Barnes, Luke Boden, Andy Dorman, Dom Dwyer, Otis Earle, Shay Facey, Steven Gerrard, Harrison Heath, Seb Hines, Frank Lampard, Tyrone Mears, Luke Moore, Luke Mulholland, Lewis Neal, Nigel Reo-Coker, Liam Ridgewell, Lloyd Sam, Jordan Stewart, Sean St Ledger, Matt Watson, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Shaun Wright-Phillips

A different way of life

Two of MLS’ marquee signings Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have both spoken about how moves were inspired by the desire to have new cultural experiences.

Yet it is not just the big-name players who have spoken of their desire to live in America. Houston Dynamo’s Giles Barnes, formerly of Derby and West Brom, says he has found a home in Texas.

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"Where people get mistaken is they think England is the be-all and end-all for football,” Barnes told Sports Illustrated in July.

"It’s not. There are so many other places in the world, so many different leagues you can experience. To find a place you can call home outside of home, that’s how I feel right now. I go to training every day with a smile on my face.”

Giles Barnes of Houston Dynamo battles for the ball with Seb Hines of Orlando City SC during their game in Houston, March 2015
Image: Seb Hines (left) and Giles Barnes (right): Both players enjoy MLS life after crossing the pond

Englishmen Dom Dwyer, Otis Earle and Luke Mulholland all came through the US college system. Sporting Kansas City’s Dwyer, who has 31 goals in 68 MLS games, spoke in 2013 about just how unusual the experience of joining Major League Soccer straight from college was. "It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done, so different to England," he told The Telegraph.

"I signed a contract with the league and had no control over where I was going to live. I think some of the smart English people are realising it’s something they want to be part of."

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Playing standard

The playing standard in the MLS has been hotly debated since David Beckham swapped Madrid for LA. However, a common view shared by all English players who have made the move across the pond is the level of competition shouldn't be disparaged. Steven Gerrard certainly vouches for it.

New Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Steven Gerrard #8 during a training session on July 7, 2015 at StubHub Center in Carson, California.
Image: Steven Gerrard: Believes the standard of play in MLS is high

"The MLS has grown and improved over the years, and the teams have also got stronger and better,” he told media at his first LA Galaxy press conference. "I have been very impressed with the standard of training so far and I am certainly looking forward to playing against the other teams."

In terms of style, MLS is regarded as similar to English football - and the end-to-end, physical nature of the league clearly suits its current English contingent. 

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The crowds

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Seattle Sounders right back Tyrone Mears has fit in with the loudest supporters in the MLS (filmed in July)

The average Major League Soccer attendance is 21,109 - that makes MLS the sixth-most attended league in world football.

Seattle Sounders consistently attract the most fans, with an average of 43,734 packing out CenturyLink Field.

For former Preston, Derby and Burnley defender Tyrone Mears, that support was one of the main points which convinced him to make the switch to Stateside after being released by Bolton at the end of the 2013/14 season.

"It’s why I wanted to come to the MLS, purely to play for Seattle Sounders," Mears told Sky Sports News HQ in June. "The fans are like the English in terms of the support - the fan base is unbelievable. It is a really big club and well supported.

"In England there can be a lot of negativity if you are losing or things aren’t going right in the game. Here, certainly in Seattle, the fans are so positive, they are always behind you."

Seb Hines has also been impressed with the level of support. He joined newly-founded Orlando City at the start of the season and has seen crowds surpass what he was used to at Middlesbrough.

Orlando City supporters: the Citrus Bowl attracts an average attendance of 32,973
Image: Orlando City supporters: the Citrus Bowl attracts an average attendance of 32,973

"Everyone is so excited and 62,000 people at the first game was incredible," the 27-year-old told Sky Sports in April. "It will live long in my memory, even at the next game there were well over 30,000, which was just about the next biggest crowd I had played in front of, so week in, week out it’s proving an incredible experience."

Despite a few peaks and troughs, the attendance in MLS has slowly risen since the league’s inception in 1996. 

Playing with the stars

This season, the expansion of the league to 20 teams has meant a greater number of marquee signings being made.

New additions Kaka, David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Didier Drogba and Andrea Pirlo would likely inspire English players to follow in their footsteps as MLS signal their ambition to become one of the world’s best leagues.

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It is a factor that Hines referred to when discussing life in MLS. "It’s not every day you get to play against world-class players like David Villa in front of 62,000 alongside Kaka," he said. "I have only been here for a short space of time but it’s definitely going to take off and I’m sure a lot of players will have it in their mind to come out here and play.

"You get to play with world-class players and with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard coming over, it’s just going to get more exciting for everyone."

David Villa and Frank Lampard
Image: New York City team-mates David Villa and Frank Lampard

Even Frank Lampard admits to being star struck when seeing who he is playing alongside. "David and Andrea are at the top of the list. I'm a lucky man to be in the same squad as them."

As the league continues to grow, it seems England could soon be the number one source of players from abroad arriving in MLS. 

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