Posted by: mdegeorge | July 31, 2010

Starting XI Points: MLS wish list

The ink isn’t yet dry on Thierry Henry’s new contract with the New York Red Bulls, but that isn’t stopping MLS teams from being players in the European soccer summer transfer window.

The league has had a knack for scooping up big names headed towards the end of their careers, some of whom—like Juan Pablo Angel and Freddie Ljunberg—have enjoyed a renaissance in the States. And I think there was the British guy who played a while, Beck, something or other.

MLS has brought some young stars into the fold in the last week, including former Hannover 96 midfielder Sal Zizzo. But the marquee names put the fans in the stands and give the youngsters the opportunity to play against top-flight talent. Since so many pundits measure the productivity of the American system in terms of talent exported to the top European leagues, it’s logical for club teams to capitalize on those sales to bring in foreign stars to replenish the profile of MLS.

So in the spirit of striking while the iron is hot, here’s my list of 11 transfer targets that MLS teams should have in their sights.

1. Ronaldinho

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Speculation has heavily linked El Gaucho with a move to the LA Galaxy, though AC Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani has strenuously rejected that claim on many occasions. The consensus was that Ronaldinho, just two years removed from back-to-back FIFA World Player of the Year honors, was washed up when he joined Milan. His first season with the Rossoneri was riddled by injuries and inconsistency, but he regained form last season in countryman Leonardo’s attack-minded 4-3-3 set with 15 goals and 17 assists in all competitions. His contract was due to end after next year, but now it looks like Milan will keep him in their squad until 2014. But at 30 years old, there’s plenty of time for the electric Ronaldinho to gravitate towards America. His flare, the living incarnation of joga bonito, will persist for some time, providing ample opportunity for a move to the States. Plus, Los Angeles may be attractive to the notorious partier in Ronaldinho.

2. David Trezeguet

If his compatriot and friend Henry enjoys the respite from the criticism and controversy of the European game, I’d almost guarantee Trezeguet to follow him over the Atlantic. Even before Henry’s first game, the Juventus striker has expressed an interest in joining the stars assembling in New York, and at least one MLS team made a concrete offer for his services. Trezuguet wears the classic label of strikers as “mercurial” with a virtuosity rarely seen, making him a volatile and controversial figure for club and country. He’s battled injuries the last few years, but the less rigorous MLS schedule would be a breath of fresh air compared to defensive-minded Serie A. A reunion between Henry and Trezeguet would be the dream scenario for everyone involved, rekindling their partnership for France and at the club level with Monaco in the late ’90s. You can’t argue with a guy who’s scored 138 goals in 245 matches Serie A matches for Juventus. The problem has always been getting him on the pitch, and an escape from the hard-tackling grind of Italy might be the solution.

3. Michael Owen

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The one thing differentiating Owen from most everyone else on this list may be what makes him most attractive to MLS: English as a native language. He’s also neared the end of his chain in the league he’s called home for the majority of his career. England’s fourth all-time leading scorer has been blighted by injuries for years, making his age (30) misleading of the actual wear and tear on his body. His latest attempt to restart his career at Manchester United started with a torrid preseason, but he cooled to just nine goals in 31 appearances in all competitions before his Swiss cheese loaf of a hamstring was aggravated again. He’s under contract with the Red Devils until June 2011, but given the wealth of talent welling up in the Manchester United youth system, it’s unlikely his services will be needed past that. There will be plenty of suitors in the Premier League and League Championship lining up to take a chance on the former Liverpool star, and Owen will likely explore overseas options only after all domestic ones have been exhausted. With his injuries, it’s unlikely Owen’s career will survive past age 34, but a season or two in MLS might extend that.

4. Michael Ballack

Ballack’s European career isn’t over yet, as he’s returned to Bayer Leverkusen roots on a two-year contract after being deemed surplus to Chelsea’s requirements. He’ll turn 34 in September, but even with his recent ankle injury, he’s still quite spry for his age. His days for Germany may not be over yet, and he still possesses an outside chance to warrant inclusion in Germany’s Euro 2012 squad. If he can maintain his form to play in Poland-Ukraine, he may follow the same pathway as Giovanni van Bronckhorst in retiring from football completely afterward. If that plan doesn’t come to fruition, a trip across the pond is a decent alternative. He’s an eminently marketable figure and an attention-grabbing name. His role in MLS would be more attack-minded, freeing him of some of the defensive responsibilities that are more taxing. A 36-year-old Ballack might want to give MLS a one-year flyer; many of the hallmarks of his game, including his sublime ability from set pieces, should survive until then. The new franchise in Portland reportedly drew some interest, but nothing materialized.

5. Deco

While we’re on the subject of Chelsea cast-offs, we might as well include the Brazilian-born Portuguese midfielder. He’s made no secret that he’s angling to secure a return to his home country with Fluminese and probably will end up finalizing that deal. He’s only 32—though he’s played like a man a few years older in recent years—but I have a feeling his exclusion from Portugal’s World Cup squad and subsequent international retirement will motivate him to continue his career. His days of being a box-to-box midfielder at the highest level of professional soccer may be over, but his creativity and play-making ability won’t fade with the same alacrity as his defensive skills. The prevailing pattern for Brazilian and Argentine players has always been to return home at the culmination of their careers, so a move from Europe to Brazil and then to the US looks unlikely. But if MLS could step in and secure Deco’s signature, it would be a huge coupe, one that could last for several years.

6. Luca Toni

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Toni’s reign at the top of Italian soccer has certainly come and gone. But it would stand to reason on physical skill alone that he still has something left in the tank to offer, especially if liberated from the defensive strictures of Italian football. Never much of a loyalist to any particular location (he’s never played more than 100 matches for any of the 12 professional teams he’s called home in his 16-year-career), he appears to be an ideal candidate to arrive on American shores. He just turned 33 and signed a two-year deal with Genoa after failing to impress at Roma on loan after falling out of favor with Bayern Munich. The journeyman who climbed the ranks from Serie C1 may not thumb his nose at a move to the US, especially if he finds himself as a 34-year-old benchwarmer for i Rossoblu. Traditionally, there’s been very little interplay between the Italian and American versions of the game—Giuseppe Rossi excluded—heightening Toni’s potential ability to mobilize support from the contingent of Italian-American fans.

7. Raul

Real Madrid and Spain’s all-time leading scorer was rather unceremoniously allowed to walk from the Bernabeu without any of the dignity that marked his storied career. Schalke was in position to benefit from Madrid’s loss, capturing his signature on a two-year deal and extinguishing a rumored move to MLS. But he’s only 33 and having never called a club other than Madrid home, he may not find the German giants to be to his liking. The classy Raul is among the most venerable names in the European game, largely immune to the temperamental vices and dips in form that may send the other members of this list to MLS. Age will be the only thing that stops him, but even a well-worn Raul will have the stature and persona to be a tremendous spokesperson for the game.

8. Rafael Marquez

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You may notice a dearth of defensive-minded players on this list, and largely because no one pays admission to watch a masterful offside trap (at least outside of Italy). But Marquez isn’t just an anonymous force in the center of defense. He’s a threat in the air who plays taller than his six-foot frame indicates. He also possesses the creativity to play in a defensive midfield role that doesn’t exempt him taking chances at goal from the run of play. At 31, he’s still got plenty of good years to offer and may very well have another World Cup in him. And after years on the highest of European stages with Monaco and Barcelona, he’s a colorful and marketable figure on and off the pitch, plus he’s a winner who took home every piece of hardware conceivable at Barca and warranted a farewell ceremony after seven seasons with the Catalan club. A deal with New York appears to be imminent, according to multiple sources.

9. Craig Bellamy

Thanks to new Premier League rules, deep-pocketed Manchester City, who has used a substantial transfer kitty to pursue the transfer strategies of now three different managers, is on the verge of essentially holding a yard sale to offload up to 30 youth and senior team players (just think if the Yankees had to sell off their entire bench and Triple –A club inside of a month). These aren’t obscure youngsters that are on the block either, with established vets and former promising young stars like Roque Santa Cruz, Stephen Ireland, Nedem Onuoha, and Micah Richards all apparently on the chopping block, plus undoubtedly others to clear space for the myriad other stars Man City is allegedly linked too. The one MLS should have its eye on is Bellamy. He’s a workhorse, but at 31, his winger position is more regularly occupied by younger, more fleet-of-foot players. While he’s lost a step or two, he would provide a much-needed wide dimension to many an MLS team. The Welshman’s intensity and workmanlike attitude on the pitch has endeared him to many a fan base and for his intense and blustery on-field persona, he’s a charitable person and a tremendous ambassador for the sport.

10. Jared Borgetti

This one’s a little out of left field, but Mexico’s all-time leading scorer looks like a logical target for MLS. The striker of Italian descent defined his career over eight seasons with Santos in Mexico, but has bounced around with 10 teams in the last six years. He blazed a trail as the first Mexican player in the English Premier League after a indifferent 2005-06 campaign with Bolton Wanderers before moving on to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad. But he’s also called eight different ports of call home in his native country, including a veritable who’s who of the nation’s biggest clubs (Cruz Azul, Chivas Guadalajara, Morelia, Puebla, Pachuca, and Monterrey). He’s currently hanging onto the last throes of his career with Club Leon in Mexico’s second division. His fame as one of the greatest Mexican players ever could make him attractive to a team with a large Mexican fan base such as Chivas USA or Houston Dynamo. But at 36, the time to move for Borgetti is quickly coming to an end.

11. Ronaldo

Ok, it’s a pipe dream to think MLS can land a guy who’s already announced his retirement at the end of the 2011 season in Brazil. But Ronaldo is just 33 years old, hard to believe for someone who’s been regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous strikers since 1994. Injuries drew his European career to a conclusion, but he appeared to regain form in Brazil with Corinthians, netting 23 times in 38 matches in all competitions. This year has been a different story, though, as the injury bug has reared its ugly head again, and it may be another few weeks before he’s on the pitch again. The three-time World Player of the Year has never been a workout maven; I would suspect his decision to call time on his career in his early 30s is most likely to bring daily workouts to an end. MLS might be able to lure him in, as his name will still sell tickets (perhaps the only reason why Corinthians still has him in the fold) and his raw talent will still yield goals, but he won’t be a player to build a team around.

Honorable Mention: Guti, Roque Santa Cruz, David James

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