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The US embraced the World Cup, but what happens in the 4 years until the next one?
The national team should certainly benefit from the schooling its players receive on the tougher, more competitive fields overseas. Donovan, for one, seemed sharper and more confident in South Africa following his successful stint with Everton in the Premier League at the conclusion of the last MLS season. But that leaves MLS with very little that is tangible to showcase out of any World Cup success.
As the American elite find their way abroad, MLS will have to rely on up-and-coming and second-tier American talent to sustain it along with some big-name foreign players, well past their playing prime, to provide the pizzazz. That formula worked when David Beckham joined the L.A. Galaxy and, to a lesser extent, with Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco playing for the Chicago Fire. Though Beckham missed most of a season due to injury and was a pale shadow of the player who once captained England, his presence in MLS was a major commercial hit in terms of both attendance and merchandise sales.
The New York Red Bulls just signed French star Thierry Henry and Mexican standout Rafael Marquez, both of whom played most recently for the Spanish juggernaut Barcelona. Henry, who will turn 33 this month, is coming off a succession of down notes: a dismal season with Barca; a goal — off a deliberate handball — that put France in the World Cup, but got Henry labeled unsportsmanlike (and worse); and a French travesty in South Africa, in which Henry did not play a single minute, but was cast as a ringleader of an embarrassing player revolt against the coach.
Still, Henry, who won a World Cup with France and European championships with both Arsenal and Barcelona, is, arguably, the most accomplished player to take the field for an American pro team since Pele and Franz Beckenbauer were taking star turns with the New York Cosmos in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And the 31-year-old Marquez, with 94 caps for Mexico, should certainly help MLS take aim at the Hispanic audience it covets.
So while the national team figures to manage a slow, steady ascent toward a not-too-distant time when this country emerges as an international soccer power of at least the second rank, MLS may not see all that much fallout. Still, even if it doesn’t thrive, it will continue to slog along as an essential ingredient in the American soccer experience and even a valuable addition to the international game.
Tuesday night’s encounter with Brazil may actually be a more important game for the visitors. Though Brazil lasted one round longer than the Yanks in South Africa, Brazilian fans regard the team’s Cup performance as a flop. Disenchantment was compounded by anger that their team had abandoned “the beautiful game” for a more rugged European style. That Spain triumphed with Brazilian flair was the final, bitter irony.
With Brazil hosting the 2014 World Cup, failure and, even worse, ugly failure are not regarded as options. For his debut, Brazil’s new coach Mano Menezes has infused his roster with young talent and promised that the team will reclaim its soccer style and soul on the way back to the top. It will be a long, arduous climb toward 2014.
It is a coup for American soccer here that the critical launch will occur here on our turf.