David Beckham was the first big-name, international star MLS was able to attract. But he won’t be the last.
For some, Beckham represents the pinnacle—the brightest star MLS will ever be able to land.
They are wrong.
MLS still possesses the infrastructure, talent and credibility to attract more international stars in the not-so-distant future.
But Beckham was not the be-all and end-all to the development of soccer in the United States.
The game has seen a rise in popularity since the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994. America transformed from a soccer-illiterate nation to one that pays $250 million for the rights to broadcast the English Premier League.
Recent polls show that that popularity will continue to increase, so it should come as a surprise to no one when the next international star decides he wants to take his talents to MLS.
For elite talents, there is an array of factors to consider when joining a new league. The most common are the compensation, level of play and the market.
MLS does not possess these factors in spades. Not yet, but recent trends indicate it will.
No one is prepared to compare MLS’ level of talent to that of the Premier League or La Liga.
Nevertheless, MLS does possess quality talent—talent that it has been able to grow and develop on a consistent, year-in-year-out basis.
“It goes without saying the MLS is not at the level of the big leagues in Europe," Henry told Will Tidey (world football lead writer for the Bleacher Report). "But we have some amazing players here and some who've gone on to prove themselves abroad.”
For all of the grandeur that is David Beckham, it was Omar Gonzalez who was named the MVP of the 2012 MLS Cup.
He stole the show in Beckham’s final match.
As Henry noted, the 24-year-old center back is just one of the many home-grown talents MLS has been able to develop since its inception in 1993.
With increasing talent, MLS will be able to remove the stigma associated with the league.
MLS can no longer be considered a “dirty word” overseas, and international stars can no longer view playing stateside as a major hit to their illustrious career—a sign that their time has come.
A note to aging stars: If you decide to come to MLS, you better come to play.
This league is not a retirement home. It never was.
The perceived notion that it is will slowly deteriorate with the consistent contributions from players like Gonzalez.
Housing this quality talent are the under-appreciated, aesthetic and raucous stadiums of MLS.
They aren’t capable of housing the 100,000 fanatics Camp Nou can. They don’t carry the prestige and historical significance of Old Trafford.
But the soccer-specific stadiums constructed in recent years have changed the dynamics of soccer in America.
Stadiums like CenturyLink Field, Rio Tinto Stadium and Jeld-Wen Field (my personal favorite) capture the increasing fanaticism for the beautiful game in America.
Watching 22,000 people sing the national anthem in unison is as spine-tingling a moment there can be in sports.
It is this kind of infrastructure and environment that MLS has been committed to nurturing in recent years.
Thirteen soccer-specific stadiums have been constructed since 1999. A 14th is already in the works for the San Jose Earthquakes.
Commissioner Don Garber has also expressed interest in new stadium deals for the New England Revolution and DC United. And let us not forget—I know Garber hasn’t—there’s the $300 million cathedral that is proposed for New York City in 2016.
Long gone are the half-empty football stadiums that plagued MLS in its infancy.
When future international stars come to play in MLS, people will come watch them play.
After a record-breaking year for average attendance in 2012, MLS is now the seventh-most attended soccer league in the world.
Future international stars will no longer have to wear the burden of “bringing soccer to America.”
Instead, they can be sold on the subtle intricacies that make American soccer what it is today.
Perhaps the biggest selling point MLS has to offer international stars are the big markets like Los Angeles and New York.
The inducements the two cities possess have lured great soccer players before—Pelé, Beckham and Henry to name a few. These big-name markets separate MLS’ potential from that of Liga MX or even the Brazilian Serie A league.
Not to say MLS has eclipsed the two, but it is far easier to sell New York City to a big-name star than Mexico City or São Paulo.
Beckham has long been vocal in his appreciation for the City of Angels. It was one of the main reasons he decided to return to the Galaxy for 2012.
Kaká’s affection for NYC is no secret either. The 2007 Player of the Year Kaká maintains a residence in the city that never sleeps.
A statement like that was not plausible 15 years ago.
No one is claiming Lionel Messi will sign with MLS tomorrow. That level of hyperbole befits a delusional columnist.
But the fact that MLS is not yet able to conduct a move of that caliber is not an indictment on the league. It does not mean it cannot one day build toward a signing of that magnitude.
Developing into a top-tier competition is a process—a process MLS has followed to near-perfection since its birth.
So for the cynics who want to engage in absolutes—claiming MLS can never develop into a top-tier competition that attracts high-profile names in their prime—I ask this: On what cogent factor is that sentiment predicated on?
MLS spent $1.5 million on lobbyists for a stadium in Queens. With four years of potential growth yet to come, do you think the league is not willing to break the bank on a big-name star to be the face of NY2 in 2016?
The blueprint is there to afford MLS the opportunity make another staggering move.