Following the arrival of David Beckham in 2007, the MLS had a star player, a face of the league. Leagues around the world have players that can instantly be recognized and associated with a club and a league. This has been crucial for the MLS in particular to compete with the “big” sports in the U.S. The NFL has Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the NBA has Lebron James, Major League Baseball has had Derek Jeter, and the NHL could hang its hat on Sidney Crosby.
The American fan likes to have a face to put with a league—a star that they can follow; a leader who represents more than just the team they play for, but the skill of the league as a whole.
When Beckham decided to take his talents stateside, the average American, relatively unfamiliar with the beautiful game, suddenly had a face they could associate with Major League Soccer. The MLS has been growing like a stalk of bamboo in the years since Beckham’s arrival in 2007 (AB-After Beckham), adding new teams by the fistful, attracting world renowned stars, and developing its own talented players in the process. Here we will take a look at the previous faces or “kings” of MLS and the potential heirs to the throne.
David Beckham (2007-2012)
A 31-year-old at the time, Beckham put MLS on the map when he signed with the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, following his time with Real Madrid. Beckham was a household name and a bona fide celebrity at that point in his career. He had won pretty much every team trophy imaginable during his time at arguably the two biggest clubs in the world—Manchester United and Real Madrid. He had the “Hollywood” factor that America loves. I mean, the guy was married to a Spice Girl, draped over billboards in nothing but Calvin Klein underwear, and was a tabloid darling.
The educated soccer fan knew Beckham was one of the world’s best when playing at the top of his game. he had previously finished second in Ballon d’Or voting in 1999 (foreshadowing!) and had technical ability not previously seen in MLS.
The average football-, baseball-, and basketball-loving American knew he was a soccer star and that he was from England, which holds weight in the U.S. Americans love idolizing the English game. If you see a soccer jersey (or kit, for all you cheeky buggers out there) it is most likely a Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, or Chelsea shirt. The EPL is by far the biggest foreign league in the states.
During his stay in MLS, Beckham did enough to remain the star of the league. He would whip in free kicks and spray Hollywood long balls to his Galaxy teammates, and he won the MLS Cup in his final two seasons. He would ride off into the sunset, with a pit stop in Paris, following the 2012 season—having left the league a much better, much more respected place than how he found it.
Landon Donovan (2012-2014)
Second in terms of star power to Beckham in both MLS and the L.A. Galaxy locker room, Donovan finally got his chance to sit on the throne after Beckham retired. He is generally considered the best player in U.S. soccer history.
Following Donovan’s key performance for the United States national team in the 2010 World Cup, his star was on the rise. Long known by U.S. soccer fans, he finally had the attention of even the casual American sports fan.
Landon Donovan was synonymous with soccer in the U.S., not only at the national team level, but also now for MLS. His list of records and accolades for the USMNT and MLS is long and impressive, not to mention well documented. Donovan, however, has announced this season will be his last playing the sport, and that leaves a giant empty seat as the face of MLS for the upcoming 2015 season. Let’s take a look at the potential usurpers to the throne next year.
Current MLS players:
Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
Pre-MLS heroics: Legend and all-time leading scorer for Arsenal and Champions League winner at Barcelona.
Prior MLS success: Four-time MLS All-Star, 49 goals in 121 appearances, led his side to 2013 MLS Supporters Shield.
Why he should be king: An absolute class individual on and off the field, arguably the most talented player to put on an MLS jersey, excels in scoring dynamic goals.
Why he won’t be king: The biggest reason that Monsieur Henry will not be the face of the league next season is that it is looking increasingly less likely that he will be in the league next year and it will be sad to see him go.
Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy)
Pre-MLS heroics: Ireland’s all-time leading goal scorer, played at Celtic, Liverpool, and, most notably, Tottenham.
Prior MLS success: Won two MLS Cups, scored 63 goals in 103 games for the league’s most visible team in Los Angeles, currently playing at MVP-level form.
Why he should be king: Keane is arguably playing the best soccer in the league at the moment. He provides the most valuable thing in soccer—goals—and he suits the royal lineage of L.A. Galaxy kings.
Why he won’t be king: At 34 years old, he’s not getting any younger, and he doesn’t have enough ‘wow’ factor for the casual fan. A solid but uninspiring choice for king—the Stannis Baratheon of the candidates.
Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
Pre-MLS heroics: Technically, the 31-year-old Texan already played in the MLS but we won’t count the before-Beckham years. Captain of the USMNT, Deuce played for English Premier League teams Fulham and Tottenham. First American to score 50 goals in the EPL.
Prior MLS success: Arrived mid-season in 2013 and scored 14 goals in MLS this season. Has the Sounders tied for first in the Western Conference with 60 points in 31 matches.
Why he should be king: “Captain America” is already loved by U.S. fans through his success with the USMNT. Returned as a prodigal son after a spell with Tottenham. Currently the best American player in the world. Follows in the American king footsteps of Donovan
Why he shouldn’t be king: Not enough star power outside of the U.S. Americans love him, but he doesn’t tend to impress the collective non-American soccer community. Doesn’t quite have the charisma of a Beckham or a Donovan.
Frank Lampard (New York City FC)
Pre-MLS heroics: Chelsea legend and the club’s all-time leading scorer, an attacking midfielder who has won every club trophy imaginable, second in 2005 Ballon d’Or voting.
Prior MLS success: None.
Why he should be king: Lampard has a high level of star power due to his success with Chelsea, currently playing well on loan to another EPL top dog, Manchester City, and still finding the back of the net. English, very marketable and will play in our country’s largest market. Very recently was playing at the game’s highest level in Europe.
Why he shouldn’t be king: May not be able to play week in and week out at high level due to age (36) and harsher travel schedule than England. Has a lot of supporters, but nothing mind-boggling. Age gives off impression the MLS is a retirement league (it isn’t). He might also suffer from sharing the New York stage with NYCFC’s other big designated player signing, David Villa of Spain.
Kaká (Orlando City SC)
Pre-MLS heroics: Ballon d’Or winner in 2007, played for giants AC Milan and Real Madrid, Brazilian superstar, winner of everything at the club level.
Prior MLS success: None.
Why he should be king: A world-famous superstar on par with Beckham, Kaká brings along a legion of Brazilian fans with him. He is still playing at a high level in Brazil for São Paulo FC, and is currently on recall with the Brazilian national team. Highly marketable, with 21 million Twitter followers. Has a similar ‘wow’ factor for casual American fans as Beckham had in 2007.
Why he shouldn’t be king: Slightly past his prime in age (32), and has battled the injury bug as he has gotten older. He’s less involved in attacking play these days, as he has been playing a deeper midfield role of late. May need time to acclimate to MLS. Form seems to have dipped after moving from AC Milan to Real Madrid in 2009.
Are there any other players you think that could knock these guys off and become the new face of the MLS next season? Let us know!