MLS bounced back this past weekend after several weeks of the type of uninspiring action that would prompt critics of the league’s quality to claim the US first division is no better than League One or Two in England (The 3rd and 4th divisions in England.) While MLS has more quality in the attack than any second division in Europe (including the English Championship and Bundesliga 2 which I consider the two best second divisions on the planet) I would argue that the lack of quality defending which is an unintended bi-product of the salary cap makes sometimes even the most high scoring MLS matches totally unwatchable from a critical standpoint.
A great deal of this weekend’s MLS excitement and quality were created by the two biggest signings the league had made this decade, two signings that are unlikely to be replicated by the league in the near future. It’s not that MLS is not making good signings any longer: but to get two players, possibly the only two players on the planet that can be used to target the most skeptical potential fans of the league in one calendar year was beyond anything those of us who have followed this league since year one could have expected.
Since his arrival stateside ten months ago David Beckham has never played a ninety minute match like he did on Saturday night versus Kansas City. It was the Beckham many of us expected to see from day one, but the learning curve of a new league as well as injuries and England call ups prevented Beckham from truly blossoming with the Galaxy. Beckham’s game was familiar to many US based fans but inspite of playing for Manchester United and Real Madrid his true assets as a footballer were less known stateside than those of the other great MLS signing a year ago. But Beckham appealed to the casual fan and to the sports media who typically pays MLS little or no attention.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco had no learning curve necessary with regards to MLS. Blanco’s exploits familiar to the majority of soccer fans in the US thanks to his Club Americá and Mexican National Team days, continued the moment he touched down in Chicago. He was the single best player in Chicago’s 1-1 draw with Celtic in Blanco’s first match. His fantastic play has continued with consistency and it has had a profound impact ironically enough on the development of the US National Team: With the US MNT in my opinion at its weakest point from an attacking talent standpoint in fifteen years (just as Bob Bradley has transitioned the US from a pure counter attacking side to a more aggressive team), three attacking players have emerged as viable player pool options: Chad Barrett, Chris Rolfe and John Thorrington. Blanco’s signing has also registered MLS as being a more credible force among the largest base of soccer fans in the US: Mexican-Americans and more specifically among Club Americá supporters which along with Guadalajara fans provide the backbone of US based Mexican fans. One survey I have been made privy too noted that 32% of all Latino soccer fans in the US listed Club Americá as their favorite club. Chivas was favored by 31%, Real Madrid by only 7% and Manchester United did not even register.
Beckham and Blanco have not only brought MLS to new levels among fans and the media, but they have also as I noted above greatly improved the play on the pitch. Landon Donovan seems ready to explode into the player US fans have long expected him to become (even though I would argue even a half interested Donovan was clearly the best US player: That is both an indictment of the overall footballing talent produced in the US and a statement as to how special Donovan can be when he is really focused.) and even previously marginal players such as Alan Gordon and Edson Buddle are beginning to really benefit from Beckham’s work and Rudd Gullit’s tactical savvy.
As MLS moves forward continuing to get solid play from Beckham and Blanco are as big a key to the league’s success and perception as any other factor.