By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - The 2017 Major League Soccer season gets under way this week and in place of big name ‘marketing’ signings, the transfer window has seen the arrival of a new wave of talent, particularly from South America.
MLS built its profile on signing well-known players from Europe nearing the final years of their career, such as former Manchester United midfielder David Beckham, but several big-money players have hung up their boots during the off-season.
Former Chelsea and England midfielder Frank Lampard retired after his spell with New York City FC came to an end and another Englishman, former Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard also called it a day after a season and a half with LA Galaxy.
Ex-Chelsea and Ivory Coast forward Didier Drogba has said his goodbyes to Montreal Impact while one of the most successful imports in the league’s history, Irish forward Robbie Keane, has ended his spell with Galaxy.
But while no headline-grabbing signings have come into the league to replace the departing talent, MLS clubs have certainly been investing in ‘designated players’ - whose high salaries are mostly exempt from the salary cap.
A total of 13 such players have been freshly brought into the league for 2017 and noticeably all but one are under the age of 30 and the majority hail from Latin America.
Leading the new wave are Atlanta United, who enter the league along with Minnesota United as MLS reaches 22 clubs, and have signed three South Americans on designated player deals - Paraguayan Miguel Almiron (23), Venezuelan Josef Martinez (23) and Argentine Hector Villalba (22).
Club president Darren Eales says the fact that Atlanta sold 30,000 season tickets before they have kicked a ball meant they could focus on simply creating a strong side for their coach - former Argentina and Barcelona coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.
“Its almost now the case that if we were to sign a Premier League player near the end of his career there would almost be a revolt,” says Eales.
“Which is interesting compared to how it used to be earlier in MLS when it was all about getting name recognition to bring in the fan who was perhaps skeptical.
Hungary international striker Nemanja Nikolic, who signed for Chicago Fire from Polish club Legia Warsaw, is another typical of the new breed of import - he is 29, at the peak of his career having recently played in the Champions League and the European Championship.
With the salary cap system designed to stop clubs outspending each other and give all clubs a chance, the outcome of the season in MLS is notoriously difficult to predict with eight different clubs winning the title in the past 10 years.
Defending champions Seattle Sounders will expect to be in the running again, as will runners-up Toronto FC. But FC Dallas, who produced the most attractive football last season, could also be a good bet and Montreal have talent.
Neither of the New York clubs - the Manchester City backed NYCFC or the New York Red Bulls - have been able to win a title and the pressure will be on the latter in particular, founder members of the league, to finally get their hands on MLS Cup.
Galaxy, who have Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos as their main attraction, are always in contention and Sporting Kansas City could be challengers.
(Editing by Steve Keating in Toronto)