The tale is told in MLS offices of how skittish were Chicago Fire officials to herald the arrival of Mexican icon Cuauhtemoc Blanco in early April.
A gathering of a few hundred fans suited the team, but a bit of prodding from MLS persuaded the Fire to stage a more expansive event. His signing had yet to be officially announced, yet more than 5,000 fans showed up at Toyota Park on just a few days' notice.
He's been drawing fans around the league ever since, not to the extent of David Beckham certainly, but in sufficient numbers to prove once again that soccer in America, like everything else, is different. Stars, real stars, not marginal retreads living on reputations, can drive up attendances, but long-term sustenance can only be attained if the overall caliber of the league traces a steady improvement in all facets, not solely the biggest names and fattest salaries.
Beckham draws fans who want to see him. Blanco attracts noisy, passionate fanaticos. "In Europe, it's not so much based around having well-known players to make excitement," says Red Bull midfielder Claudio Reyna, who played for a dozen years in Scotland, England and Germany before coming home last winter as a Designated Player. "In America, having some famous faces helps."
On both counts MLS has hurdled barriers in 2007. The men brought in as DPs, except for Denilson, have thrilled fans by doing the spectacular and spurred their teammates through their dedication and professionalism. They've also produced on the field.
Blanco scored a goal in his Fire debut against Glasgow Celtic and has revived a moribund team. A spectacular 30-yard blast into the top corner against Real Salt Lake in a buzzing Rice-Eccles Stadium is one of his many highlights. When he visited Home Depot Center, Chivas USA announced its first sellout (27,000) for an opponent other than the Galaxy.
The Red Bulls' Juan Pablo Angel has been dueling for the goalscoring lead all season and is the likely choice for MVP. Yet he does more than finish. He flicks on balls to dangerous spots, roams the attacking third in search of cracks, pressures defenders dawdling on the ball, and never slacks off. He upped his tally to 19 goals in the penultimate game of the season by nailing his fifth penalty kick (in five attempts) and tapping in a feed from Dane Richards following a Kansas City giveaway. A superb reflex save by Kevin Hartman on a bullet header denied him a hat trick.
"The thing about him that's unique is he manages to find ways to make a defense worry about him," says Red Bulls assistant coach and former U.S. international John Harkes. "He's a constant threat. Even if he's not threatening the goalmouth in the first half he'll come out in the second half and link up and become more of the provider instead of the goalscorer. He assists people, works hard, and closes people down. He keeps himself involved."
When he's been healthy, Beckham's crosses and set plays haven't disappointed. On his name alone, attendances in numerous MLS stadiums doubled. The league and the Galaxy took some harsh criticism for playing him too soon after he arrived from Real Madrid with a tender ankle, but only his debut against Chelsea wasn't a competitive match. The Galaxy needed to win games and after he suffered a twisted knee in late August it reeled off victories in late September and October to climb back into the playoff chase without him.
In adopting a restricted method by which teams can add high-salaried players, MLS has accepted its need for at least some stardom while retaining controls. A DP counts for $400,000 against the salary cap of approximately $2.1 million per team, which represents a $50,000 penalty above the maximum salary of $350,000. Teams can add a second DP by trading with another team; New York acquired a second slot from Chivas USA so it can field both Angel and Reyna. The second DP costs a team $325,000 against the cap. Angel is earning $1.594 million, and Reyna is on $1.25 million.
"The Beckham thing has overshadowed everything else, but Blanco will be very impactful and I think Angel has the ability to be very impactful for New York," said D.C. United president Kevin Payne shortly before the season started. "For Claudio, Bruce [Arena] was looking at it more from a soccer standpoint."
DPs, AND MORE. Payne has been proven right on all counts regarding the DPs he mentioned. Yet more than a dozen other imports not classified as DPs were vital to their teams, as were a handful of precocious rookies. Whether a team can field one or two DPs, the quality of play depends just as much on the nuts and bolts
Players alone don't guarantee success in pro sports. The North American Soccer League drew dozens of international stars but collapsed into a fetid mire of mismanagement. Signing fleets of Europeans drove the National Hockey League to the brink of ruin and forced the postponement of a full season to rectify finances.
FC Dallas is a better team because of Juan Toja and Pablo Richetti, Columbus wouldn't have been anywhere near a playoff placing without Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and D.C. further burnished its reputation with foreign players by nabbing Brazilians Fred and Luciano Emilio. Kansas City added two Argentines, Real Salt Lake went one better and brought in three.
According to salary figures released by the MLS Players' Union, the trio of Javier Morales, Fabian Espindola and Matias Mantilla is costing Real Salt Lake about $500,000 in salary this season. None of them has been outstanding, and Morales missed a lot of the season with a torn shoulder muscle, but they - and many of the non-DP newcomers signed this season - are skillful, smart players that upgrade the product as well as the players around them.
Blanco has transformed Chicago, most definitely, yet defender Wilman Conde has shored up the back line, and forward Paulo Wanchope, despite physical problems that limit his mobility, has proven to be tough to handle in the air.
Toja, 22, is an exciting, dynamic player, and Colombian club Millonarios wasn't happy when Conde, 25, left to rejoin Coach Juan Carlos Osorio in Chicago.
On sentiment alone, Maykel Galindo's defection from his native Cuba and excellence for Chivas USA following a season in the USL with Seattle is an incredible story. He's also scorched opponents with his pace and finishing. He's just what this country, and this league is about: opportunity. And frugality.
"We think we've got the best two new players in the league," says Payne, who signed Emilio for $293,195 and Fred for $222,008. "Not only is Luciano leading the league in goals but I think he's the hardest working forward in the league. He's really embraced our system of pressure. He and Jaime [Moreno] have really started to connect. It took them a while to get on the same page.
"Fred's work rate is off the charts. The amount work he does in the course of the game and the amount of pressure he puts on the guy he's playing against is just remarkable."
Not every move is destined to be a coup. Maybe the loan of Ricardinho from sister club Atletico Paranaense won't work out and Dallas will let him return home. It has to make a decision on Denilson, obviously, but also with Richetti.
If New England and Houston, which reached MLS Cup last year and didn't go outside the league to make changes, fail to reach the final again, they might ponder these kinds of moves more seriously.
Reyna, who grew up in New Jersey, was eager to come home after playing for more than a decade in Europe. Angel, a Colombian native of Medellin, moved to MLS from English Premier League club Aston Villa after several spectacular seasons at legendary Argentine club River Plate.
"I'm still adapting to life and to soccer here, but probably the backing that I had has helped," says Angel, who is 32 and is under contract for two more seasons. "It is kind of similar to England and now the fact I speak the language and stuff like that will raise the possibility of adapting a little bit quicker to my environment."
Few South Americans played in the EPL when Angel joined Villa in 2000. Peruvian international Nolberto Solano had little company, and the culture in the city he chose differed radically from Buenos Aires and Medellin.
"When I got there, there was only Solano at Newcastle," says Angel. "I believe he was the only South American player in the league. And there wasn't much, especially in Birmingham, of an Hispanic community around.
"So I was basically there on my own, with my family. It was kind of tough. In some ways coming to America has been easier. The Hispanic people here know about good soccer and they want to have a good product on the field. The more quality players they bring in, the more people will come around and they will react well to the expectations."
Debates of adding a second DP per team will be held in November during MLS Cup, yet most of the teams that haven't used the option have succeeded by either standing pat, as in the case of last year's finalists, or shrewd use of pre-existing league mechanisms: allocations, youth internationals, Generation adidas players, etc.
Chivas USA traded away its DP slot and got stuck with Honduran midfielder Amado Guevara, who balked at being moved on to Toronto and left the league entirely to play on loan in his native country. But coach Preki and MLS struck it rich with Galindo, whose fearsome pace playing for Cuba at the 2005 Gold Cup had drawn notice.
He defected during the Gold Cup while the Cuban team was in Seattle, played a season and a half for the USL Sounders, and lit up the Chivas attack as soon as he arrived. The tandem of Galindo and veteran forward Ante Razov formed perhaps the best one-two combination in the league. Razov scored 11 goals before suffering a knee injury late in the season; Galindo went into the final game with 12 goals and his team in first place.
"He's just been great for us, obviously," said Razov. "His pace is what you notice, but he's a worker, too, making good runs and looking for ways to get in behind the defense."
Reyna believes there are maybe one or two dozen other USL players who can further upgrade MLS, but changes need to be made to accommodate them at a proper salary. Teams are permitted 18 players on the regular roster and 10 developmental slots. The minimum salary for players on the regular roster is $30,000; most developmental players make between $12,900 and $17,700.
"The best thing for me would be six developmental [players] and a 24-man roster," says Reyna. "Of course, there's a salary-cap issue and money comes into play in all of this, but you need more trusted and experienced guys. If the league could get the best 10 or 20 [USL] players, right there the rosters would improve."
(This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)