After reading Kartik's post about the exploitation of David Beckham, I would totally agree with many of his assessments. The critics out there have really had their way with the whole 'Becks to MLS' matter. It has been a media day and, so far, all sides have been right.
For those Americans sports writers who hate soccer with a passion, they have shown their readership (who usually hate soccer as well) that Beckham was a waste of money. On the other side of the Atlantic, the British media have said that the LA Galaxy would have no respect whatsoever for Beckham's heath. They are also right (though they don't seem to blame Steve McClaren for Beck's poor health by shipping him around the world, playing 90 minutes on consecutive days in two continents).
But when it come to the remarks of Paul Gardner, I highly disagree with the "US Soccer must turn its eyes south instead of across the Atlantic to truly capture the hearts and minds of fans across the nation" statement. Up until now, all the MLS has done is turned it eyes to the south, and rarely over the Atlantic.
Yes, the player pool for the MLS has been rich with Latin success, and, in some cases, European failure.
But to completely ignore Europeans and their role in the MLS would be a big mistake.
One of the reasons is pure and simple...Europeans are good soccer players. While there have been some busts in the MLS (and I think it is way to early to determine if Beckham is a bust or success), there have been some European success stories as well. Youri Djorkaeff 12 goals in 45 appearances with the New York Red Bulls was great for an aging player. Roberto Donadoni proved a solid player for the MetroStars. Peter Nowak lead the Fire to the MLS Cup (and put butts in seats).
But, of course, there have been the Lothar Matthaus' as well.
Still, while we talk about looking more to the south than to the east, the MLS really hasn't invested in European players at all. Yes, the MLS has had a few decent European signings but, in reality, they have been few and far between. And out of those, only a handful of players have had any type of name that people actually know. The truth is that the MLS already looks southward for their players but rarely looks eastward.
With the amount of Latin players in the MLS, I feel that the MLS has become a regional league. And unless they start dipping into the European player pool, they will remain a regional (if not national) league.
This is where the English, Italian and Spanish leagues have prevailed. And on the other hand, this is where the German and French leagues have failed.
The EPL, La Liga and Serie A has done a great job of 'internationalizing' their leagues. Teams in the EPL that traditionally had a large number of English players on their teams no more than 10 years ago now show a completely international face. The same can be said to La Liga and to some extent (thought it is starting to look more and more Italian) Serie A.
Still, followers of soccer, both in Europe and around the world, know these teams. You walk around the streets of any major city around the world and you are just as likely to see as many Manchester United jerseys as you would local club jerseys. This is where their attempts to internationalize the sport has worked.
On the other hand, the Germans have French has done a poor job of this. With the exception of Bayern Munich and possibly Lyon, very few people outside of Germany and France follow these leagues or teams. I contribute this to the fact that both leagues have done a poor job internationalizing their leagues. Yes, Germany gets a lot of talent from South America, but that seems to be it. They rarely dip into other European countries. And in France, it seems to be almost entirely French, which isn't great when considering that most of their national team plays outside of France.
And because of these teams rarely picking up other Europeans, they have a poor time marketing their team outside of France and Germany.
That is the problem that the MLS has. With their current blueprint, they looking in great shape for promoting their league in Mexico and some other Central American countries, but not beyond those borders. While Blanco has been the most impressive pickup for the MLS this year, a aging European player like Figo would do more to draw non-Mexican fans. Pure and simple, Blanco draws in Mexican fans, that is it, no other fans whatsoever.
If the MLS wants to start gaining some respect, they need to get more players from Europe. Now we don't need to increase our national debt to send a player like Beckham over the pond, but other players that have expressed an interest in coming here or have been linked to possible MLS moves would have been a big benefit to the league.
But when looking at Europe, the question is what part of Europe do you look at, Eastern Europe or Western Europe? There are arguments that can be made for both.
Easily, the players from the Western Europeans countries have the names. People know theses players. But players from Eastern Europe have just as much skill as Western European players.
But Eastern Europeans will draw more people into MLS stands than mid-level Western Europeans would. Yes, top-level Western Europeans like Ballack, Rooney or C. Ronaldo would draw a large number of fans. But in cities like Chicago, players like Jacek Krzynówek, Michał Żewłakow and Jan Koller, all who play in smaller teams in Europe would bring just as large of a crowd.
Still, with the popularity of the MLS increasing, much of that thanks for Beckham's move, the league has come to an impass. They have a very important question to ask themselves.
Do we want the MLS to be more popular in the U.S. and not as popular internationally, or do we want to capture the international market and not make the MLS a regional league?
With the exception of Beckham, they are clearly doing the former. But I agree with the latter.
Lets just look at the New York Yankees. They draw as many people to their games as do most top MLB games. They sell more merchandise, of course.
But here is the difference...The Yankees can sell caps in Liverpool, England as easily as they can in the Bronx. George Steinbrenner has been able to make the New York Yankees an international icon. Still, the New York Red Bulls are far from that standard.
Maybe we need to sell the MLS to Steinbrenner?