Spoiler alert: Once again, you won't find a Major League Soccer club in this week's Power Rankings. That should come as a shock to no one. MLS still has an ocean to ford to be on par with the best leagues in the world.
That said, the events of the past few weeks have been vastly important in the ongoing development of America's league. When commissioner Don Garberannounced just before MLS Cup XI that the league's owners voted to put the designated-player rule (the so-called "Beckham Rule") into effect, it set off a chain reaction:
Hot-stove rumors. World-renowned names linked to American teams. Clear haves and have-nots emerging from a formerly egalitarian system. Owners and players sniping at one another.
If I didn't know better, I'd say MLS is doing an awfully good impression of a major American sports league.
The background on the Beckham Rule is fairly simple: Each team now has a league-mandated space on its roster for one player who won't count against the $1.9 million salary cap. Since all salaries are paid by the league, that player would top out at the league-maximum $400,000 a year; any amount beyond that would be picked up by the individual team.
Translation: Bigger stars are on their way. Though many of the rumored players you've heard mentioned are past their prime, their mere presence will be a boon for the growth of MLS. If, in the next few seasons, players such as David Beckham, Ronaldo and Luís Figo find their way into Galaxy or Red Bulls jerseys, it will boost the league's profile by miles.
I know, we've seen this movie before. But the American soccer market is far more mature than it was in the 1970s -- the glory days of the NASL -- when our first stab at a star-laden league failed because its owners outspent and outgrew the demand. Today, Americans know more about soccer, our interest in the World Cup is greater with every go-around and -- most importantly -- there are millions upon millions to be had in corporate sponsorships and TV deals.
Here's what's going to happen in the short term. The introduction of the designated-player slot has been the most intriguing wrinkle in the 11-year history of the league. Because the slots are tradeable, they've become the MLS equivalent of Boardwalk. Their market value was set earlier this week when the Red Bulls traded Amado Guevara and a second-round draft pick to Chivas USA for its slot. So what is a designated-player slot worth? Apparently a former league MVP and Golden Boot winner -- that's the type of package a club will have to put together to get an additional slot.
New York is now officially the first club with two such spaces. Is Red Bull saving it for Ronaldo or Figo? Perhaps. Ronaldo has stated his fondness for New York, and Figo told me in September that he'd love to play there as well. But before you get excited, an MLS coach told me he's certain New York's first big signing -- the first player to take advantage of the new rule -- will be former U.S. national-team captain Claudio Reyna. (He'd return home from Manchester City to his native New Jersey, where he'd be reunited with his former national-team and college coach, Bruce Arena.)
Not exactly the splashy name we all have been salivating over, but it is a significant signing. Reyna arguably has had the most success overseas of any American player in history, and the suggestion that his value to MLS is much greater than the maximum salary speaks worlds about how far Americans have come in the big leagues of Europe.
We'll have to see what happens from there. Most teams probably won't even use their designated-player slots this season, and that includes Columbus, Kansas City, Colorado and -- unless it plans on doing its Chicago Cubs impression -- up-for-sale D.C. United. (This also begs the question, is Clint Dempsey's relationship with MLS so damaged that New England can't figure out a way to give him its slot, preventing the best American player from going overseas?)
I fully expect L.A. Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas to make a trade for a second designated-player slot, just as the Red Bulls did. That will clear the way for Beckham (which I truly believe is going to happen), and it will ensure the Galaxy have a way to keep paying golden boy Landon Donovan close to $1 million a year past the '07 season. (Trust me, the idea of Becks whipping in crosses to Lando is YouTube gold for MLS.)
In the coming years, we'll likely see more Europeans heading to America, we'll probably watch Chivas USA further tap its Mexican roots and we'll hopefully see D.C. United milk its Argentine connections (think Hernán Crespo and Martín Palermo).
With big stars on rosters, MLS will enjoy an unprecedented spike in interest. In short, these guys will put rear ends in the seats and TVs tuned to matches in a way the league has never experienced. But the challenge MLS will then face is how to translate that pop into longer-term interest. The growth potential of the league is only as good as the fans it can attract and the investments it can secure. And there's plenty of both in this country.
The pieces are falling into place. I can't tell you what's going to happen from here or if it's going to work. What I can tell you is this: For better or for worse, the MLS we knew is dead. If in a year or two, we see the Red Bulls, D.C. United, the Galaxy or Chivas USA make these Power Rankings, we'll know that the league's foray into the great unknown was a smash hit.