Who will be MLS' next Beckham?
I ran into an acquaintance on a flight from Columbus to New York this weekend, and he said, "I hear Beckham scored an amazing goal."
"You've got to YouTube it," I replied. "It's pretty astounding."
Now, this guy is not a soccer guy. He's an ad-sales exec. Yet here he was talking soccer in a way he never would've just 12 months ago.
Hallelujah for the Designated Player!
We're about a year into MLS' grand experiment with marquee names, and it's hard to argue with the results. David Beckham, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, et al., have cranked up MLS' global awareness to 11, but also performed like the stars their contracts say they are. (I'll chalk Denílson up to the soccer equivalent of beer-goggling.)
Sure, there are still plenty of naysayers who scoff that Beckham is "over-the-hill crap" and MLS is just chasing the merchandise money. But the highlight of Beckham's 70-yard goal from Saturday night will have even these guys spilling their beers. Because the truth is, there is only a handful of players in the world who could've nailed that shot. And this one plays in MLS.
Beckham's goal will be shown all over the world, which, as a colleague pointed out, "is why he's getting all that money." You think SportsCenter would've cared if Alan Gordon had done the exact same thing? Nope. Because it was Beckham, it was news the world over.
And if you think it's only MLS that desires that kind of news, just ask Real Madrid about the effect of Beckham's global appeal. Los Merengues this month took out a $48 million loan to cover the revenue shortfall created, in part, by Beckham's departure. By contrast, the L.A. Galaxy have sold enough Beckham jerseys to clothe the entire population of Toledo, Ohio (not that any tried-and-true Toledoan would ever trade his Mud Hens jersey for a Galaxy No. 23).
Blanco is like Beckham's Mexican doppelganger. On Sunday, as if challenged by Beckham's performance, the Mexican superstar put on a show of his own, scoring a penalty and assisting on three goals as his Chicago Fire whipped the New York Red Bulls, 5-1 -- at Giants Stadium.
The former Club América god has transformed the Fire from a bunch of lollygaggers at the start of the 2007 season into MLS' top team right now. His trickery and flair have excited the Section 8ers -- who were already as crazy as a bunch of unattached electrons -- into a cyclotronic mass of flag-waving, drum-thumping, flare-lighting energy.
So who's next? That's what my European soccer friends always ask. Do you think Colorado would sign Cesc Fàbregas? Should San Jose go after Xavi?
Europeans. They're so cute sometimes. It's hard for them to understand that MLS cannot afford the Fàbregases and Xavis of the world. They also rarely consider the fact that a DP has to bring more to the party than talent. He has to have name recognition, an attacking flair (read: no goalkeepers), something left in the tank (read: no 36-year-olds), and the ability to withstand the occasional Canadian clubbing from Adrian Serioux. In the end, I toss out a bunch of names like Alessandro Del Piero, Clarence Seedorf and Martín Palermo, but here are the names I think would make the most sense.
Ronaldinho. From a global brand standpoint, Ronaldinho comes right after Beckham. The Ronnie brand has actually penetrated the U.S. consciousness thanks mainly to the Nike marketing juggernaut. Even casual sports fans here know "that Jheri-curled Brazilian guy." His jersey shows up on New York streets, and his buck-toothed grin is mimicked by kids at soccer-plexes throughout the land.
After this past disastrous season at Barcelona, Ronaldinho's days at Camp Nou seem numbered, and several Euro-heavies look set to pay the roughly $70 million transfer fee. That sticker price would make MLS' owners snort their Dom Perignon back out their nose, but in a few years -- remember, Ronnie's only 28 -- it should come down to a more palatable number, and hopefully someone will pick up the player who is as close to the perfect DP candidate as it gets.
Thierry Henry. This one is already supposedly in the works. Of course, the average SportsCenter junkie is clueless about Henry, but even the most peripherally interested soccer fans know who he is. And MLS needs to do a better job of capturing the peripherals.
Henry's only 30, his contract at Barcelona is up next summer, and he's stated he will probably retire from international football after Euro 2008. I could easily see him embracing Chevrolet and cherry pit. After all, he has enough friends (Tony Parker, Tiger Woods) in the States to fill, say, Qwest Field for next year's Seattle Sounders opener. Hey, the rumor's already out there, so we might as well fan the flames.
Andriy Shevchenko. OK, so Roman Abramovich's pet project might come with a price tag only a Russian oligarch could love, but Sheva's dying for a new start. Go west, young(ish) man! Despite his troubles at the Bridge, Shevchenko remains an international brand name. The Italians revere him (and blame his struggles on the English game, not on the man), and there's no doubt in my mind he still has the ability to score heaps of goals.
The 31-year-old Ukrainian is the kind of foreign striker that succeeds in MLS, mainly because he doesn't rely on speed, but on tactical awareness, opportunism and ingenuity. Plus, his wife, Kristen Pazik, is American and wants to raise their children in an English-speaking environment. Her family lives near Washington, D.C., which isn't far from Philadelphia, home of a new MLS team in 2010 -- the same year Sheva's Chelsea contract is up. Hmm ...
Adolfo Bautista. To put it bluntly, this list has to have a Mexican; demographics and ad dollars demand it. So, with young superstars Giovani dos Santos and Nery Castillo too expensive, the next best thing is the current Jaguares de Chiapas star and former Chivas de Guadalajara icon.
"Bofo" -- his nickname since he was 3 -- has previously been linked with Chivas USA and you can understand why. He's big (6-foot-1), young (29) and talented, both as a goleador (87 Mexican-league goals) and a deft assist man (what's the Spanish word for a playmaker?). More importantly, he has cool hair! His outgoing personality and penchant for Blanco-esque drama would delight MLS crowds and Univision's variety shows.
Now the real question is: Would any of these guys come?