MLSsoccer.com continues its look back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. Our second annual “What Ever Happened To..." series rolls on with the first French star in MLS, 1998 World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff.
Where They Were Then
Djorkaeff was a big name when he joined the then-MetroStars in 2005. His stellar career in Europe included stops at AS Monaco, Paris-Saint Germain and Inter Milan, but he was somewhat of a pioneer in MLS, too, as the league's first French player and only its third World Cup winner.
The talented striker put his pedigree on display quickly in New Jersey, scoring 12 goals in 45 appearances over two seasons. He called it quits after the 2006 season, the club’s first as the rebranded Red Bulls.
Where Are They Now
On a chilly New York winter night last week, onlookers could have caught a glimpse of the striker sporting a France ‘98 warm-up track suit while playing a pickup game on a turf field in the shadow of the half-built World Trade Center.
Djorkaeff, now 43 years old, displays the same elegance on the field as he did when starring for Les Bleus. He demands the ball, sees passes no one else does and repeatedly dribbles through two and three defenders, despite being slowed by age and a torn Achilles. It is not the Djorkaeff of old, but he does a strong imitation of himself.
The worldly Frenchman never left New York after saying goodbye to the Red Bulls. He loves living in Manhattan and is working to give back to the city he now calls home.
"My dream project is to start a foundation in New York to raise money and provide scholarships to kids who can't afford to play soccer here," he says after his pickup game. "I want to work with all the clubs in Manhattan and give between five and 10 scholarships a year. I hope it's going to start next season."
The former Red Bull also covers big Ligue 1 games for a French TV station, traveling back to France 10 to 15 times a year. This past weekend he jetted off to Lyon for Olympique Lyonnais' match against PSG.
Djorkaeff says he enjoys the gig because it keeps him involved with soccer in France but allows him to live in New York and remain close to his son who is attending college in Philadelphia. The boy did not follow his dad's footsteps on the field.
"He's studying," Djorkaeff says proudly. "He's much brighter than his father."
The former star thinks MLS is making progress, but needs to focus on the quality of the game.
"It's good to have Beckham, it's good to have Henry,” he says, mentioning his former France teammate. "But we need to think about how the kids can be better.
“We need to teach the 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds how to play faster and how to react faster. The problem in America is that you're thinking when you receive the ball. You need to think before you receive the ball."
He hopes his foray into club soccer will help improve the skill set of the youth in his adopted country. But at his core, Djorkaeff remains a fiery competitor.
"You should have been on my team,” he says after his pickup game. “Then, you would have won.”
He smiles when he says this, but it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t be so generous if he had lost. Late-stage Youri loves victory just as much now as he did when he raised the FIFA World Cup trophy. Some things never change.
What They Said
“I remember being in awe of Youri when I played against him in MLS due to his laundry list of accomplishments and the composure and vision he had on the field. After getting the opportunity to play in a pick-up game with him, my sentiments remain the same. The guy is class.”
– Jimmy Conrad, former MLS defender