This Christmas, MLS Commissioner Don Garber finds a more popular league under his tree, so let’s take a look at the five players who helped wrap and deliver that present.
First, we need to define terms. Popularity is one of those more fuzzy words that can mean pretty much whatever anyone chooses it to mean (which itself is a Christmas gift for writers of seasonal twaddle).
Typically, popularity sort of means something having to do with a state of being well-liked.
For a soccer league in the land of the NFL, NCAA BCS, NBA, MM (March Madness, but rolling with the acronym theme), MLB, NHL and even PGA, couldn’t popularity also just mean a state of recognized existence?
For purposes of this Christmas-season slideshow, it can and does.
But then even recognized existence is too vague. Soccer, which is occasionally referred to as football, is as global as Rudolph's flight path. Recognized existence in the U.S. and overseas are different things.
This brings up the 800-pound gorilla in an elf-sized room. Being known internationally and being respected internationally are also altogether different things. So another category of popular player is who brings MLS the most international respect.
We’re only doing five slides of Christmas. (Who would flip through a full 12?) So, for the last category of soccer Christmas popularity, we’ll remember that professional sports are a business.
Player popularity in that sense means who sells tickets and merchandise. From that player’s perspective, those gifts to the team are rewarded with Santa-sized paychecks from the club.
There we have it. The five slides of MLS Christmas popularity: Who wears the gold rings, gives soccer the most credibility among global football fans, makes the top U.S. league known overseas, best puts MLS on the American sports map, and is the most-liked player.
…my head coach queried me: Who is the most-liked player in MLS?
Players who produce are appreciated by fans. Players who consistently produce through sheer will power, competitive fire and other lion-hearted character traits become loved by fans.
If that sounds like Ben Olsen, you’re as bright as Rudolph's nose.
In the introduction, we never said it had to be a current player. This slideshow is taking that liberty. Olsen is still a face of MLS. He's traded in his black jersey for a gray suit, but few are fooled by the office duds. This is the same Ben Olsen.
He’s the Rocky Bleier of MLS (minus the whole Vietnam foot injury). A workman of a midfielder, Olsen played with about as blue collar an approach to the game as could be imagined.
He is loved by D.C. soccer fans, and beyond. Upon his retirement in 2009, the Washington NBA franchise honored Olsen's No. 14 jersey with a $14 ticket special. To keep him near the field and in front of fans, United offered him a job as an assistant coach.
However, the next year, United fired Curt Onalfo in mid-season. Olsen, despite both his and the front office's candid assessment he wasn't ready, took over the team as head coach.
He since has approached his new role the same way he played the game. Olsen is not a guy who will out-think himself tactically (though United’s tactics were sound all season).
He is, however, a coach who will bench any player not giving everything on the field, regardless of salary.
…my head coach queried me: Who best puts MLS on the American sports map, and is the most-liked player?
Whether he’s playing for the Los Angeles Galaxy or the U.S. men’s national team, the only answer can be Landon Donovan.
Alright, since Santa is watching, maybe there are other possible answers. Americans who don’t watch soccer could probably name three in MLS. Donovan or David Beckham would be the first.
The other would be Freddy Adu. Seriously. If you don’t believe that, ask one of your friends who happens to be a fan of every sport except soccer. You know the guy. He’s the one who will watch bass fishing over an MLS game.
Donovan, however, is widely known and seen as someone who performs on the field. Beckham briefly had an opportunity to replace Donovan as the on-field face of MLS, but gave it away by using what little mobility he had left chasing his own ghosts of Christmas past in Milan.
Plus, Donovan’s on-field performances with the national team kept him as a highlight favorite in American media. You would have to live on Grinch Mountain to not have seen Donovan’s 2010 stoppage time goal against Algeria.
At the moment, the big request topping Christmas lists for many U.S. fans is a Donovan announcement that wild reindeer couldn't keep him away from next year's World Cup qualifiers.
…my head coach queried me: Who makes the top U.S. league known overseas, best puts MLS on the American sports map and is the most-liked player?
David Beckham did more to create international awareness of MLS than anyone.
When he signed with the Galaxy six years ago, a media three-ring circus hyped and spun the arrival of America's soccer savior.
He may only be a one-phase player, and not even very versatile in attack phase anymore, but Beckham is more than a player. He’s an international celebrity, icon and marketing brand. He’s a spice spouse. He’s the reason 13-year-old girls worldwide know MLS exists.
Some of those 13-year-olds may even know what the letters MLS stand for. Probably none of them could tell you at any point in the last six years where Los Angeles stood in the Western Conference table.
But that’s boring player stuff, and as mentioned, Beckham is more than a player.
…my head coach queried me: Who gives soccer the most credibility among global football fans, makes the top U.S. league known overseas, best puts MLS on the American sports map and is the most-liked player?
The imported Beckham made the league known worldwide. Successful exports from MLS give the league some (begrudged) credibility.
There are several we could point toward as being especially high on Santa’s nice list. Carlos Bocanegra, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley come to mind.
Let’s take a different tack, however, and go with Dwayne de Rosario.
The league's All-Star Game pits MLS players against a preseason club from England or Europe. Many fans there play it off as more or less a joke of a friendly. They need to, because to acknowledge that anything American equates to good football would cause their world views to crumble.
They pay attention to things like this friendly with the MLS All-Stars.
De Rosario has scored in three All-Star Games, including twice striking game winners. Those goals were against Chelsea in 2006 and West Ham United in 2008.
MLS wins in this game are scoffed as meaningless because the visiting opponents aren’t in form and aren’t playing for anything other than pride.
Fair point, but it is also a fair assumption that scoffing masks at least a little befuddlement that the results haven't been more one-sided.
It’s just one of the little amusements that make being an American soccer fan all the better. At least Europeans can point to the fact that De Ro is Canadian.
…my head coach queried me: Who wears the gold rings, gives soccer the most credibility among global football fans, makes the top U.S. league known overseas, best puts MLS on the American sports map and is the most-liked player?
Think Beckham is getting his second Christmas popularity award? Think again.
Thierry Henry was the highest paid MLS player in 2012, with a salary of $5.6 million. Needless to say, Henry can do all the holiday shopping he likes at Tiffany’s.
Henry’s Red Bull teammate, Rafael Marquez, takes the silver. Beckham will have to settle for bronze. Then again, Beckham received other considerations when he first signed with the Galaxy, like future franchise ownership rights, so it is not quite that cut and dry.
But Henry, with the highest paycheck in MLS, takes home the gold rings this Christmas.
Editorial note: No Christmas carols were harmed in the making of this slideshow.