The newest trend in Major League Soccer is the willingness of teams to add ‘big name’ designated players to their rosters in an effort to add quality and wins to the franchise bottom line.
The recent additions of Thierry Henry, and Rafa Marquez in New York, and Nery Castillo along side Freddy Ljungberg in Chicago, has seen the maximized use of MLS’ new designated player rule spread throughout the relatively young league.
The question remains: Will these high priced additions lift the league’s overall profile and somehow vault it to a position of respect in line with the worlds top football associations?
The answer is simple: Yes and No. Not that simple?
Well, first let’s look at the yes answer:
The most common criticism of MLS is the fact that there is a noticeable lack in the quality of play in some facets of the game seen here. Perhaps, with the addition of verifiable talent to its rosters, an immediate impact will be seen on the pitch,
Consider the following:
Teams must account for the scoring opportunities created by the top level players by upgrading their defenses, and countering the threat with talented and organized attacks of their own.
The designated players also create, or lend to better atmospheres in and around the arenas, something that in and of itself can lead to a higher level of play (i.e. the expansion Toronto FC squad performed at a surprisingly high level, backed by then most vocal fans in the league at the time)
Players such as Henry, or Ljungberg can lend much in the way of on-the-field coaching, and “leadership by example.” They can, virtue of their superb play, systematically train their less experienced teammates and expose them to the higher standards of football seen in leagues around the world.
The higher level of play will no doubt lead better gate receipts, leading club management to take chances on bringing better players into the squad, obviously leading to better quality on the pitch.
Of course, designated players alone can not solve the league’s problem regarding quality on the pitch. The league must not disregard the need to create a development system that nurtures young promising players and provide the atmosphere and room for them to prosper and ply their talent on a long term basis.
Currently, MLS relies on the transfer dollars these players can command from top flight leagues elsewhere (i.e. Jozy Altidore). This strategy, while vital in the league’s formative years, should give way to the domestic franchise’s abilities to provide a venue for these players to meet the personal career challenges they seek.
The rapid development of soccer specific stadia is also vital to adding to the quality of the overall product. Former Los Angeles Galaxy Head Coach, and Dutch National Team star Ruud Guulit noted a need for increased pitch quality to properly showcase the talents of young up and coming MLS players. This reality is currently being addressed with the stadium projects underway in Kansas City, San Jose, Portland, Vancouver, and eventually Houston.
Overall, Major League Soccer is developing at a lovely pace. The game in the United States has seen remarkable improvement, evident in both the success of the National Team program and the rapid emergence of MLS as a viable destination. With continued progress and measured planning, the league will no doubt be included in discussions regarding the world’s best in the not to distant future.
Rafa Marquez signing rumors
Thierry Henry Wikipedia page