They say experience counts. Let’s just consider for a minute the backgrounds of five of the Designated Players MLS teams have added since last month:
Between Thierry Henry, Rafa Márquez, Geovanni, Mista and Blaise Nkufo, we’re talking more than 75,000 combined minutes of experience in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Cup.
For a league that’s trying to go big – and more important, mainstream – that’s an awfully big endorsement of MLS’ potential. And it also proves that this league is serious about becoming a player in world soccer.
Four years ago, former Red Bull Youri Djorkaeff told me what MLS needed was big names, big stars – not just to put rears in the seats, but because, as he put it, “You need to dream here. The kids need dreams. And not just dreams about Manchester United and Liverpool, but dreams of success at a high level here in America.”
Well, dreams are becoming reality. Djorkaeff’s good ami Henry is in MLS, as are other big names, and more are sure to follow. It’s starting to become clear that we can dream even bigger.
But something occurred to me last week as a young Brazilian squad beat up on the US National Team. Like you, I watched with a mix of horror and joy as the young Seleção showed off a gleeful return to the jôgo bonito – the fast, fluid, gorgeous style that made that nation what it is and won it five World Cups.
Even America’s Joe Sixpack, who would rather watch Brett Favre gimp it out for his 56th season in the NFL, knows the simplest fact of all facts: Brazilians are really, really good at soccer. You sign one, and you’ve got yourself a prize trophy to show off.
“The average fan will always think about the yellow shirt first when they think about beautiful soccer,” said FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman, a self-professed disciple of the Brazilian style. “The tradition of Ronaldinho, Pelé, Garrincha, Zico – the average person will look at that as the golden chalice.”
Pelé set that bar ridiculously high for the NASL back in the 1970s – and really, it hasn’t been matched since. A small handful of Brazilian stars have come and gone and, for the most part, failed at capturing the imagination of the American public.
Well, guess what? Times are about to change. The new DP rules in MLS have proven that no player is out of reach, regardless of the pedigree, experience or even paycheck. The time is right to go out and catch that big fish.
And yes, we’ve heard it all before. Since MLS was founded, nearly every one-named Brazilian with an “R” has been rumored in one way or another to be headed this way: Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Romário, Ronaldinho. None has transpired – yet.
But the environment has changed. MLS is on the cusp of becoming bigger than it ever has. Money is being spent in unprecedented amounts. And the audience – more educated with each successive World Cup and American tours by big-name clubs – is growing and embracing the game.
That’s why it’s time for MLS to take the plunge, play those samba drums and go and get another needle-moving Brazilian. It’s time to go get Pelé dois.
Of course, it isn’t as simple as just signing a player. The reason why creative Brazilians have, for the most part, failed in MLS is profound. For one, the big names that came here thought it would be a cakewalk. Both Branco and Denílson, both World Cup veterans, came into MLS in 1997 and 2007, respectively, overweight, undermotivated and surprised by the pace of the league.
But even the more obscure ones – innately talented with otherworldly skill – often weren’t able to adapt to the pace of the game. For all of the Weltons, Freds and Luciano Emilios that succeeded here, there have been far more Ricardinhos, Ricardo Virtuosos and Naldos.
“To bring out best in their game, sometimes Brazilians need to be in an environment that is not as structured,” says MLS technical director of player development and scouting Alfonso Mondelo, who also coached the MetroStars in 1998. “Someplace where they have more freedom to be themselves.”
That doesn’t always work out in the rigid, physical systems of MLS coaches. It’s much the same in the EPL, where few Brazilians have succeeded. Mondelo gives the example of Robinho, who fizzled out at Real Madrid and Manchester City, but was back to being his dribble-happy self while on loan at Santos last season.
But that’s starting to change, too. Teams that feature up-tempo styles like FC Dallas, Columbus, San Jose and Real Salt Lake look like ideal landing spots for Brazilian talent. Even teams like the LA Galaxy – a rigid, defense-oriented team if ever there were one – have found ways to integrate a gifted player like Juninho.
And that’s another great point to make. No country in the world exports more soccer players to foreign leagues than Brazil. And while it’d be great to get a massive star here in MLS, the young loanees who are invading the league can help imbue it with just as much samba flavor: FCD’s Jackson, LA’s Juninho, Leonardo and Alex Cazumba.
All great pieces to the puzzle. But right now, these are exciting times when MLS is pushing through to fans who wouldn’t ordinarily follow the league. And nothing sells the beautiful game like the jôgo bonito.
Geovanni could become that guy. If he succeeds in San Jose, Frank Yallop may have himself another MLS Cup to polish. But it can’t stop there. It’s time for a team to step up and really dazzle us with a big name.
“If you can bring in a guy like a Kaká,” dreams Hyndman, “would he not be wonderful in this league? He’s smart, young, good-looking – all the things parents would like to look at. He’s one of those rare players who will work on both sides of balls. I don’t know if MLS has $90 million to spend.”
Maybe not. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility anymore, is it? Let’s samba.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.