By Andrea Canales
Turns out that the young American league didn't need to look over the
pond for a true impact player to advance soccer's cause - they found the perfect fit in the
country right next door.
It's likely that no Designated Player in Major League Soccer has been
as successful as Cuauhtemoc Blanco. Juan Pablo Angel and Guillermo
Barros Schelotto have been important contributors to their respective
clubs on the field, but neither has the drawing power of Blanco. Simply
put, people come to watch Blanco play, in numbers that they don't show
up for anyone else in MLS, except for David Beckham.
Yet despite the impressive attendance numbers, Beckham's impact on his
squad has been far less than that of Blanco, who has led the Chicago
Fire to the playoffs every year he has been with the club.
Several things worked in Blanco's favor when he joined MLS. First of
all, the Chicago Fire were struggling. This was a team ripe for a hero,
eager to welcome any help he could offer. Secondly, Blanco, unlike
Beckham, arrived to his new team healthy in 2007 and managed to stay
that way for the vast majority of his time with the team. Finally,
Blanco boasted an intensely loyal fan base, which turned out in
impresive fashion wherever he played. Unlike the Beckham crowd, many of
whom were curiosity seekers who didn't know very much about soccer,
Blanco fans were diehards who brought a sophisticated appreciation for
the nuances of the game to the stands.
Fire players spoke enthusiastically about the reception these fans gave
them whenever they played. A timely tackle or a sharp cross would
garner applause and cheers, because these supporters understood there
was much more to a match than scoring a goal. Meanwhile, Galaxy players would find such support moves unrecognized, though random screams of delight would rain down every time Beckham touched the ball.
Beckham's struggle in MLS and the ensuing saga of him trying to remain
at AC Milan and extricate himself from his Galaxy contract has provided
fodder for many to heap scorn on the U.S. league. It is doubtful that
many of the current MLS fans would forgive or forget his behavior
easily, and thus, should he return to the Galaxy, Beckham is likely to be a target of insults and
namecalling from some of these faithful.
While Beckham might look better modeling underwear than Blanco, Fire
fans have learned to love the Mexican's competitive spirit and creative
plays. It's a classic tale of substance topping style.
Blanco's appeal has not flagged. A preseason game, meaningless to
league standings, is expected to draw around 40,000 to Sun Devil
Stadium on March 14, according to press reports in Arizona, where the
friendly between the Fire and the Galaxy will take place.
The Fire have confirmed that Blanco and U.S. star Brian McBride will
participate. In perhaps a telling hint to what will eventually take
place, the Galaxy confirmed Landon Donovan would be at the match, but
had no word on Beckham taking part.
That hasn't slowed ticket sales much. The people buying know what they want, and they are coming to see Blanco.
Andrea Canales is the Chief Editor of Goal.com USA.