MLS has grown substantially since its inception in 1996.
The league expanded from 10 to 19 teams. There are now 13 soccer-specific stadiums, and MLS signed its most lucrative television contract to date in 2011.
The three-year deal with NBC Sports was for a reported $10 million a year.
All this progression has not changed the perception of MLS internationally. It's still considered by many to be a “sub-par” league “struggling to survive.”
"It is a question of time, I thought -- we had the World Cup in 1994. But it is now 18 years in so it should have been done now. But they are still struggling."
In order for MLS to alter this warped perception it must rely on its biggest stars and unknown commodities. Current MLS DPs must carry out the protracted mission Beckham set out to finish when he signed in 2007.
With Beckham embarking on a new mission in Ligue 1, here are the three DPs that could pick up where he left off in growing MLS internationally.
David Beckham decamped with two MLS Cups. Landon Donovan’s self-imposed sabbatical is now extended until late March.
That saddles the early fate of the Los Angeles Galaxy on the shoulders of Robbie Keane.
Keane recorded 16 goals with nine assists in his first full season with the Galaxy.
At only 32, the Irishman still has plenty of soccer to offer MLS.
But with approaching World Cup qualifiers and an international duty with the Republic of Ireland, Keane will once again be forced to miss time with the Galaxy.
His exclusion from this list is admittedly tough. Although, Keane doesn't boast the marketable name, recruiting ability or standing as some of his fellow designated players in the MLS.
Tim Cahill struggled to acclimate himself to the rigors of MLS last season.
A nagging calf injury plagued the end of his first season with the New York Red Bulls. The 33-year-old midfielder finished the year with just one goal and three assists.
He was scoreless in his final 11 starts.
Cahill’s pedigree at Everton is well documented. No one can take away from the 68 goals, many of which he used his head for.
Cahill will need a stronger 2013 campaign before he can be called upon to be a spokesman for MLS.
He must first exhibit the productivity to match his $3.6 million salary.
Federico Higuain is only the third designated player in Columbus Crew history. He is now one of three players essential for international growth in the MLS.
The Higuain name is world renown. It is one of the more inviting names in the world of soccer.
Much of that is currently due in large part to Gonzalo Higuain’s success at Real Madrid. Though, Federico has done his part to boost the Higuain name here in America.
Federico was hyped as a savior for an anemic offense when he signed last July. The Crew scored a woeful 18 goals before his arrival.
Higuain's impact was immediate and Columbus' anemic attack was transformed.
In his debut with the Crew, the Argentinian recorded one goal with one assist in a 2-1 victory over Toronto FC.
He would finish the season with five goals and seven assists in just 11 starts.
It was a small sample size, but that did not keep 28-year-old from being named the 2012 MLS Newcomer of the Year and two-time Player of the Week.
Much like his younger brother and father, Federico is worth the price of admission.
His dynamic play and world-class finishing provides MLS with the type of highlight reel needed to sell itself internationally.
The black and gold didn't sign the younger, more-polished of the Higuain brothers. Although, Federico boasts the name and quality of play to be a spokesman for MLS.
Oscar Boniek Garcia is one of MLS’ prominent, yet unknown commodities. The Honduran international has played a pivotal role in the resurgence of his national team as well.
Since his first cap in 2005, Garcia has made 73 appearances for Los Catrachos. USMNT fans are familiar with his most recent achievement, an assist on Jerry Bengtson’s game-winner in Honduras earlier this month.
A fixture in the Houston Dynamo midfield, Garcia started in 17 matches after signing with the team last summer.
His transition was seamless. Garcia scored four goals with six assists and was an integral part of Houston’s run to the MLS Cup.
It was enough for the Honduran international to be named the top Latino player of the 2012 MLS season.
While the on-field production is there, it's Garcia’s off-the-field contributions that makes him an indispensable piece for MLS.
In a few-months time, Garcia has been an ambassador for the league. He has not shied away from delivering glowing praise of MLS to his compatriots.
Garcia has even gone as far as recruiting his fellow countrymen—urging them to make a similar move to MLS.
Rumors surfaced last month linking Alexander Lopez to the Houston Dynamo (per MLSsoccer.com). It all stemmed from a conversation the 20-year-old midfielder had with Garcia.
Either way, Lopez is not running from the opportunity to play in MLS.
“The Houston Dynamo manager saw me when we played them in the United States. I think it would be a nice experience that other Honduran players are already living."
Honduras has shown it can provide talent capable of playing in Europe. Roger Espinoza and Andy Najar can attest to that.
MLS will benefit greatly if Garcia can keep recruiting some of that Honduran talent.
No designated player this season will be more influential in MLS’ international growth than Thierry Henry.
With David Beckham’s departure, Henry is now the preeminent soccer icon the league has to offer.
His celestial resume trumps that of any other DP. That laundry list of accolades includes five league titles, a FIFA Club World Cup and a World Cup title.
Henry has done his share of promoting the American game since his arrival in 2010.
Much like he did in his interview with Will Tidey, Henry has taken every opportunity to talk up the American game.
“It goes without saying the MLS is not at the level of the big leagues in Europe. But we have some amazing players here and some who've gone on to prove themselves abroad.”
“I love Connor; for me, he’s our go-to guy. He plays right, left, center, back, forward. It doesn’t matter”
Henry has been New York’s go-to guy the past two seasons, scoring 19 goals with 16 assists. He was twice named to the MLS Best XI.
Henry admitted leaving a legacy beyond an MLS Cup is essential.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. That’s the aim. But I said when I am going to retire finally, the beauty of it for me will be for instance, Connor Lade being on the National Team and one day coming up to me and saying, ‘You know what, you helped me throughout my career,’ and stuff like that. That for me would be better victory than winning the MLS.
Henry has already won in that regard. Lade received his first call up last month.
But more than prophetic aspirations are required from Henry in 2013.
MLS' signature moment last year was a Union-Jack covered David Beckham lifting the Phillip F. Anshutz Trophy. A similar moment with the most decorated DP in MLS history is ideal for a league looking to cultivate the international audience.
It is incumbent upon Henry to deliver that moment in 2013.
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