MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. (AP) - Andrea Pirlo and his girlfriend can walk nearly unnoticed on New York’s High Line elevated park after dinner at a quiet Italian restaurant.
Steven Gerrard can take his family to Disneyland without hordes of fans blocking his path through Fantasyland.
When the best European soccer players reach a certain age, relative anonymity is just one of many reasons to migrate to North America. Their wealth and fame don’t vanish, but they can live and play in Major League Soccer without spending their everyday life under a spotlight.
“It is refreshing, and it’s peaceful,” said Gerrard, who left Liverpool last summer for the LA Galaxy and a rented mansion in Beverly Hills.
“I go about my day-to-day business pretty much unrecognized,” he added. “The odd few people who are football - soccer - fans pull me aside from time to time, which is fine. But at home, it’s very intense. It’s very grueling when you’re the captain of Liverpool and England. It’s nonstop.”
The two-decade flow of mature talent into MLS hit another high in 2015 with a remarkable influx of prominent players from Europe.
David Villa, Frank Lampard and Pirlo teamed up with deep-pocketed NYCFC. Didier Drogba left Chelsea for the Montreal Impact, and Italy’s Sebastian Giovinco joined Toronto FC. In addition, Brazil’s Kaka and Mexico’s Giovani Dos Santos left European careers for lucrative stateside moves.
The league’s growing international profile and deep-pocketed owners make it more attractive than ever to players hoping to end their careers with comfortable living and regular playing time in a relatively benign fan culture and media climate.
While some superstars adjusted to the league’s heat, altitude, sub-optimal fields and lengthy travel more quickly than others, the big names are back for the start of the league’s 21st season this weekend, all determined to justify their hefty contracts with improved play.
The game is a challenge, but the lifestyle is a dream for Gerrard and Pirlo, who have embraced their opposite ends of the continent.
“I thought it would be more difficult to move to New York and live there, but actually it was really easy,” said Pirlo, the revered Italian midfielder who arrived near midseason. “I picked a rather quiet area of Manhattan to live, and it was very easy to adjust because with my lifestyle, it’s fine. New York is so accommodating. You can do anything, anywhere, whenever you want. Not a problem.”
The stars head into the new season better equipped to handle the quirks of their new league and its enormous geographic footprint.
For instance, the North American summer heat is the tradeoff for avoiding frigid European winters, and only mad dogs and Englishmen go outside in a Texas summer without preparation.
“When I turned up here, I didn’t know there was humidity in Houston,” Gerrard said. “I didn’t know there was altitude in Salt Lake. There was a lot about the league that was a bit of a shock to me at the time.”
A multi-hour flight to a road game is usually only a Champions League problem in Europe, but it’s a regular occurrence in MLS. Rather than chafing against the travel challenge, some stars choose to embrace it as part of the lifestyle they’ve chosen.
“Part of the experience for me coming here is to travel and see places the way we did last season,” said Lampard, the longtime Chelsea star. “Vancouver was fascinating for me. As a player, you have to overcome the difficult sides of it, preparing for the game and getting off the plane after a long journey, but I like it.”
Giovinco made the greatest impact on MLS, which got an Italian star in his ostensible prime. The 5-foot-4 scorer was even better than expected during his MVP season, even though he needed about six weeks to adjust to the time changes and long flights.
“At the moment, a lot of my friends are calling me,” Giovinco said. “They want to come here and play in the MLS, but unfortunately that’s not my call. I can’t sign them up. The MLS game is growing. Everyone in Europe looks at MLS in a different way.”
When they arrived at midseason, Pirlo and Gerrard didn’t immediately stand out among the best players in MLS, as Giovinco or Drogba did.
While Pirlo had periods of effective playmaking in midfield, he also struggled at times in 13 goalless games while NYCFC missed the playoffs. Gerrard scored in his debut, but also searched for top form and connections with his new teammates.
Both expect to improve this year after a full training camp with their new clubs and their added familiarity with their exciting new world.
“Coming to Los Angeles was fine for me, and settling in off the pitch is not a problem,” Gerrard said. “It’s just a shame that press don’t grade you on performance off the pitch, because I’d be getting 10 out of 10.”
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