Introduction

It was nine years ago that David Beckham signed the landmark deal that brought him to the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer. It promised to be a game-changer for the still fledgling league, and that very much came to pass. While no one with Beckham's fame has come to MLS since, many players with similar or even better resumes have.

It proved an even better move on the business side, where a league that was practically begging for owners of their 13 teams now has franchises being valued at more than $100 million. There's so much interest in joining MLS that the 20-team league already has four more teams scheduled for launch by 2018 and plans to go up to 28 relatively soon after.

But none of that has shaken the image that MLS is a retirement league, somewhere aging stars go to get one last paycheck before calling it a career. And it's true, there's a long list of players who have done just that and even continue to do so. Cuahtemoc Blanco handed it off to Thierry Henry who was followed by the likes of Frank Lampard.

So in some sense, the label fits. MLS has only been too happy to make a place for these players, putting them at the center of marketing campaigns and reserving spots for them on All-Star teams.

But it's also a bit more complicated than that. Almost across the board, these aging stars have found adjusting to MLS far more difficult than they had likely anticipated. The league has also improved to the point that some of these expensive players are actually proving to be a detriment to their teams.

More than anything, what MLS is proving itself to be is a league where even very good players have to be committed to the cause in order to succeed.

Even looking at Beckham's run, it's worth remembering that it didn't start out so hot. The Galaxy missed the playoffs in each of his first two years, despite over half the league qualifying. It wasn't until Beckham stopped doing offseason loans and committed himself to the Galaxy full time that they started living up to the hype (winning the first of two MLS Cups with Beckham on the team in 2011).

Last year proved to be an especially hard lesson for several similar quality players. Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Giovanni dos Santos and Andrea Pirlo -- in particular -- all arrived in midseason with somewhat questionable commitment levels and were roundly pantsed by the league. In fact, among the eight highest paid players in MLS last year there was not a single playoff victory among them.

The team that won MLS Cup (Portland Timbers) ranked 11th in team spending, while the team they played ranked 13th (Columbus Crew). The Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls spent less than any other team and the league's three cheapest squads all made the playoffs.

That's not to suggest good players don't cost more money or that having more good players shouldn't help you become a better team, it's just that those two things have their limitations with the way MLS has structured their salary cap.

Sebastian Giovinco, for instance, deservedly won MVP, after scoring 22 goals and picking up 16 assists in what might be the single greatest offensive season in MLS history. And Didier Drogba scored 11 goals in 11 games at 37 years old, while contemplating retirement. Both players clearly demonstrated an enthusiasm for playing here, and never acted as if this was some sort of brand-building exercise.

But neither of them did much in the playoffs, either, with Drogba's only postseason goal coming in the game that eliminated Giovinco's Toronto FC in the first round.

None of this is going to do anything to slow the influx of likely-past-their-prime international players, of course (just look at what the Galaxy did this offseason). MLS will continue to be attractive because it has the decided advantage of not bouncing checks and providing players with a certain lifestyle. And whether or not there's a direct correlation to winning, there's a logic that dictates teams will continue seeking out high-priced players for a variety of reasons both soccer and otherwise.

So the chances of MLS entirely kicking this "retirement league" label are basically nil.

While that label may prove impossible to kick, though, MLS is as fast, as physical and as exciting as any league out there with plenty of young players making names for themselves. Canadian Cyle Larin, 20, burst onto the scene by scoring 17 goals as a rookie. Colombian Fabian Castillo, 23, has started to harness his exceptional physical tools and is drawing interest from clubs all over Europe. His Argentinian teammate Mauro Diaz, 24, smoothly sprays the ball around the field and is poised for his own breakout season if he can only stay healthy. American Jordan Morris, 21, has already scored on the international stage before appearing in his first MLS game.

This is a league that is finally growing comfortable with itself. And if that includes having a few players looking for a final paycheck, all we ask is that they earn it.