If one were to envision a pipeline dream for MLS, it would be inevitably a point where the league was recognized as one of the best leagues in the world. A league where top-tier foreign players would want to test their skills, much in the manner in which current players flock to Italy's Serie A, the Spanish Primera Liga and the English Premier League (EPL).
While MLS is still some ways away from getting to that point -- the league is making slow but sure progress. The critics that decried 37-year-old Youri Djorkaeff's signing by MLS last year as another example of a washed up former European star coming to America to pick up a pay check, missed out on one important fact. Djorkaeff can still play -- and play well, a fact he proved with an outstanding rookie season in MLS.
The question is where does MLS go from here? Does the league open up its checkbooks and start adding more high-profile foreigners? The oft-mulled and so-called 'David Beckham exception', a proposal that would allow MLS teams to each add one star player to their squad irrespective of salary cap constraints, would be a step in the right direction. It would allow an influx of the type of creative flair player that MLS still lacks in abundance, while still allowing young American talent to develop.
Fans of the EPL today would barely recognize the EPL of its early years, consisting as it did of some vigorous but ultimately poor technical play. Only the introduction of early foreign pioneers such as Eric Cantona (with Leeds and then Manchester United) and Gianfranco Zola (with Chelsea) added a level of flair and artistry to the EPL. The current incarnation of the EPL sees a league stocked with international flair players and a whole new generation of young English players with improved technical skills modeled on these foreigners.
This is what the promise of importing star players into MLS brings. Aside from the obvious attraction of having a star draw to help attendance, signing such players has the potential to bring about a dramatic improvement in the overall quality of play both presently and in the trickle down effect on future U.S. generations. Given MLS' salary cap structure and the one exception per team, there would be little danger of an influx of foreign players drowning out homegrown U.S. talent.
With this in mind, the recent declaration by Brazilian star Ronaldo that he would be interested in playing in MLS, is certainly tantalizing. The reality of course is that Ronaldo is still far too young and still in too much demand amongst the top European clubs. It is unlikely he would contemplate such a move at this stage of his career. However two or three years from now, it's certainly a likely possibility. He has a well-known admiration for the U.S. lifestyle.
Of course, MLS needs to be careful: The last thing it needs is to import a bunch of Lothar Mattheus-types, who were former big names who came to MLS and either couldn't (or in Mattheus' case wouldn't) play anymore. What it needs to do is to target the soccer middle class, i.e. top 30-something players who have reached an age when the natural assumption is that a little something has been lost, making them less valuable in perception than in actual reality.
An example of this type of player would be Dennis Bergkamp of Arsenal. Despite his advancing age, the Dutch star still has been one of Arsenal's most potent attackers the last few years, proving that for some players, age is nothing but a number. Bergkamp himself is unlikely to be interested in a move to MLS given his chronic fear of flying, but he's exactly the type of player MLS should be looking to bring into the league. When targeting star imports, MLS should be focused primarily on bringing in attacking players - the U.S. already produces an abundance of quality goalkeepers, defenders and defensive midfielders.
Is David Beckham himself a possibility? The Real Madrid star has been on record plenty of times expressing his interest in a move to MLS, but as with Ronaldo, it's a move that's likely only to happen nearer the end of his prime. With Real looking to extend his deal this summer, any potential Beckham arrival is probably two years away.
That said, here's a list of 10 players that are likely to be very available this summer and that would make perfect sense for MLS: (age in brackets)
1. Rivaldo, Olympiakos, (34) - One of the most perplexing myths in world soccer today is the idea that Rivaldo's playing skill has diminished. True, he might have lost a little foot speed, but he was never that quick to begin with. Anyone who's watched him play for Olympiakos in the Champions League and the Greek league could probably confirm that he has lost little else. Indeed, there is a groundswell of opinion in Brazil that Rivaldo be recalled to the Brazilian squad for the 2006 World Cup. Although he just signed a new deal with Olympiakos, there's no doubt he'd be available for the right price.
2. Jay-Jay Okocha, Bolton, (32) - Long underrated, the former Nigerian international virtually single-handedly carried club team Bolton to unprecedented heights in the EPL the last two seasons. His technical ability on the ball is unmatched outside of anyone not named Ronaldinho and brings a showboating entertaining quality that fans at every one of his stops have come to adore. Seemingly no longer an automatic first-choice for Bolton, Okocha might be tempted at the thought of trying something new.
3. Jared Borgetti, Bolton, (32) - It's a no-brainer to bring the celebrated Mexican national team striker to MLS. In addition to helping MLS target the Mexican-American and Hispanic fan base, Borgetti brings innate goal-scoring ability to the table, something that few MLS teams have. Given his status as an afterthought on the Bolton bench, there wouldn't be much resistance on Sam Allardyce's part to letting him go.
4. Ariel Ortega, Newell's Old Boys, (32) - As Argentine prodigies often are, Ortega was once touted as the next Maradona, He's historically shown great skill and flair which has often been negated by his explosive and volatile temperament. Presumably older, wiser and now out of the national team spotlight, his playmaking skills would add another dimension to MLS.
5. Edgar Davids, Tottenham, (33) - It was only two seasons ago that you could argue that former Dutch star Davids was almost as pivotal as Ronaldinho in Barcelona's astounding turnaround. After inexplicably languishing on the bench for both Inter Milan and Tottenham since then, Davids' stock is at an all-time low. Having said that, in his limited appearances in the EPL this season, he doesn't appear to have lost much at all.
6. Rui Costa, AC Milan, (34) - Displaced as the creative hub at club level by Brazilian wunderkind Kaka, Costa has played relatively little soccer the last couple of years for AC Milan, so at least he should be fresh. Given his ability to play as an attacking midfielder or deep-lying playmaker, he could still make a huge impact in MLS.
7. Alvaro Recoba, Inter Milan, (30) - Long regarded as one of the best backup strikers in the world while at Inter, Recoba seems to have lost a little of his luster as of late. Having said that, Recoba's ability to score from range almost anywhere on the pitch with his famed left foot would be a tremendous coup for MLS.
8. Roy Keane, Celtic, (34) - The talismanic Irish midfielder currently plays for Celtic in the Scottish League and his stay at times has been less than idyllic. Given his background and reputation, he'd be an ideal pickup for either the Revolution or the Red Bulls.
9. Karel Poborsky, Ceske Budejovice, (34) - Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky receive most of the plaudits for the Czech Republic, but old man Poborsky is arguably the glue that holds the team together. Poborsky remains a key fixture in the Czech national team lineup. He's lost none of the pace, flair and trickery on the right wing that once earned him a big-money move to Manchester United and is currently slumming it the Czech second division after a contract dispute with former club Sparta Prague.
10. Steve McManaman, (34) - The former Liverpool and Real Madrid star is now semi-retired and a free agent after being released by Manchester City prior to the current EPL season. Having said that, given his gregarious nature, willingness to run at defenders and ability to operate either on the wing or as the creative midfield fulcrum, he'd be an interesting signing for MLS and great for the locker room chemistry.
Outside of these 10, there's one player who remains an intriguing prospect for MLS to look at. That player would be Falcao, undoubtedly the world's greatest Futsal (indoor soccer) player at present. Only 28, the Brazilian Falcao has an incredible degree of on-the-ball skill -- on his level he's a Maradona-esque talent. Obviously in making the move to outdoor soccer, he's not going to make that type of impact, but it's worth bearing in mind that most star Brazilian players were prominent Futsal players in their youth. Ronaldo, Robinho and Ronaldinho were all renowned Futsal phenoms before moving to the outdoor game. I'm not saying he'll be that caliber of player, far from it -- but there's no question that at least some of his skills will translate to the outdoor game.
Converting Falcao is an experiment that has been attempted before -- Sao Paulo signed him in early 2005 to see if he could replicate his skill in the Brazilian league. Sadly the experiment was very short-lived and failed, although not with some controversy. Most observers felt he hadn't been given a genuine chance to succeed. For MLS however, it's certainly a gamble worth taking. In terms of sheer entertainment and unmatched ball wizardry, Falcao would pratically guarantee his team and MLS a weekly spot on SportsCenter.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org