By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (Dec 30, 2011) US Soccer Players --Ah, the off season. A magical time when bloggers, sports writers and columnists following and discussing the North American soccer scene start to maniacally pull out their hair while blankly at the screen to come up with a story worth reading. Unfortunately for us, there is no off season to speak of. We have to write as our livelihoods depend on it, yet when there is literally nothing to write about or the pickings are slim, we tend to fall back on the ridiculous world of transfer rumors.
Gossip, to be exact. The MLS off season is ripe of the stuff. It’s the equivalent of grannies sitting around the table playing canasta, sipping chamomile tea, and gossiping what Mrs. Q said to Mr. X across the street. It’s entertaining enough in the moment, but ultimately empty and unsatisfying.
It’s also something that will never get old or go away. It’s part of pro sports regardless of game or code. Who will move where and what will it mean, regardless of whether or not it actually happens.
We can thank David Beckham's arrival five years ago for the current state of affairs, and a lot of other hallmarks of the contemporary version of MLS for that matter. Like no European export before him, Beckham's signature changed the scope of this League, moving it to “acceptable” status to the countless graying hairs of Europe. It’s a destination league for the generation of players that started their careers at the turn of the millennium. Finishing in the States might remind people of the old North American Soccer League, but few European players see it as a walkover. They've been here in the summer on tour with club or country. Still, the volume of would-be MLS'ers trading elite European clubs for summer nights in Kansas City and Frisco borders on the surreal.
This off season has seen the names of Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Alessandro Del Piero, and countless other stars being attached to MLS teams (most notably the Galaxy) as possible transfer fodder. It’s a who’s who of talent that now has become the norm at this time of year.
Entertaining delusions of fantasy aside, most of them will never kick a ball in an MLS uniform. A big reason for that is a specific view of what MLS means. Simply put, it means the prime real estate in New York and Los Angeles, and as we know most of those spots are already taken. With New York and LA the only appropriate stage, the pool of prospects that will actually sign with MLS begins to dwindle.
What's an advantage for the Galaxy, Red Bulls, and a far lesser extent Chivas USA is a problem for the rest of the League. It's tough to maintain even the MLS version of parity when the star power is limited to LA and New York. That's not exactly helped with MLS reportedly lining up a true NYC club.
It’s also worth noting that as much as we’d like to believe that these players are interested in our league as a destination in their final adieu, most actually use MLS as a bargaining chip for better contracts elsewhere or with their current team. It’s a ploy to extract as much money as they can from the lesser leagues around the globe seeking to add marquee names pass their prime. After all, Beckham, Thierry Henry, and Robbie Keane play there.
MLS is no different. We have created a natural order of things by insisting that these prime players be paid a premium, hence the Designated Player moniker and a way through the glass ceiling. Yet, there might be a disconnect on the real value that our league places on these players, and what these players themselves believe they’re worth. Is a Del Piero worth $4 million a year? Is a Lampard? They would probably think so, and MLS probably does not. We would like to see these sort of names on rosters around the League, but with that comes the type of expectation that clubs built around a single marquee signing might not be able to meet.
Not to say that it can’t work. Again, look at the MLS Cup champions. Even though it took years for Beckham and the Galaxy to get a Cup, it eventually happened. Henry and New York might be an easy target for critics right now, but there's little doubt they have the ability, money, and willingness to correct their issues. In both of these examples, we're talking about players making a long-term commitment to their MLS clubs. That works against the retirement tour that some of the names linked to MLS seem to be expecting.
Thus the glut of rumors that aren't likely to prove accurate.
Giving up a sense of truthfulness and allowing a little silliness seep through reality isn’t always bad. Looking at the big picture, the League only benefits when elite players by any standard consider MLS an option. That wasn’t reality a decade ago. It is now.
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