With the New York Red Bulls signing French "star" Thierry Henry, speculation has begun— Is this the signing that puts the MLS at the table with the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL?
Well, we can put that speculation to rest right now — No.
Thierry Henry is a fading player from Barcelona, who has shown considerable signs of slowing down.
But, where does fading talent go? A weaker league, where their skills, comparatively, do not seem as poor to the untrained eye.
The equivalent of a 45-year-old Michael Jordan going back to basketball, and instead of playing for the Bulls in the NBA, he trots out for a D-League team. It'd be easier for him to still have "it."
But what is "it" for Henry when he comes to the MLS?
Will he light up the scoreboards? Maybe.
Will he increase attendance? Probably, for his home club, NY.
Will he make the MLS mainstream? Not. Even. Close.
The problem here, is not that Henry is a good signing or a bad signing, or even if he is losing a step or two, skill wise.
The issue, lies within the overall MLS talent pool.
For great competition, the MLS needs great players. And, I don't mean they need to just buy every great player from Europe, Spain, Italy, etc.
Talent needs to be home-grown in a way. For Americans to turn off a baseball game and turn on the World Cup, that's a step in the right direction for soccer popularity in the US.
However, the MLS (and the US Mens' National Team) needs American talent we can see develop in front of our very eyes.
Wouldn't it be a great story, if a great American athlete who chooses soccer over baseball, football, track, etc plays high school soccer, setting state records along the way and wins a state title? And then becomes a hyped recruit going into college, and wins a few rings at a top college in the US, one with media exposure?
And what if after that, this player stays in the US to be a part of a soccer movement which finally takes off, and he becomes Jordan-esque, taking the sport to new levels of popularity?
That's all American soccer and MLS have right now, is "hope" or, "wouldn't it be great if...," because at this point, soccer isn't embraced enough to pull in tens of millions of United States viewers like the NFL, or put 50-70,000 fans in every stadium, every game like the NFL.
It's a growing process though. MLS has only been in competition for 14 years. Where was pro football in 14 years after being part of the US sports scene? Well, considering the NFL really has it's first roots around 1920 or so, 1934 baseball was BY FAR superior to the football game.
Same applies with soccer in the US.
For the sport to be successful, a few things need to happen:
Until our culture embraces soccer as "entertaining, popular etc," children who choose soccer over football won't have the same level of popularity. That might not always be the case, but it may factor in that it's "cooler" to be on the football team than on the soccer team.
Athletes like LeBron James in the NBA or a Hanley Ramirez in baseball, are really athletic players, athletic in such a way, that their talents are capable of more than basketball or baseball.
However, why would they choose to turn down $75-100 million (In LeBron's case to play soccer over basketball?)
James' speed, power, and size would make him at least a competent soccer player, had he gone that route as a child.
Or, Ramirez, for his speed, ability to cover ground, and overall athleticism. It's yet to be determined if either of them would be capable of kicking a soccer ball well, but if Chad OchoCinco can attempt an extra-point field goal in an NFL game, pretty much anything can happen.
So, what can the US and soccer fans do to increase the exposure or popularity of the sport?
For talent and competition to increase nationally in the US (so our few "great" players don't follow the money to England, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc) participation must continue to increase.
Soccer camps need to be in the same level of accessibility of those for football and basketball and baseball for youth players.
With these players getting involved earlier, there is a greater chance they'll stick with it.
Also, lets not neglect the fact that increased participation, increases the chances of a once-in-a-generation type athlete.
If the US's best athletes start coming to soccer (even just because it is currently a weaker game and they stand a better chance to stick with a team, or even dominate than in other sports) it will create a following.
I'm sure some Syracuse fans have become fans of the Denver Nuggets to watch and see how Carmelo Anthony develops as a basketball player.
The same would be true for soccer.
If the hypothetical player above chooses soccer as a youth sport, plays and dominates through high school, he could garner media attention comparable to college football or basketball recruit on signing day when he announces where he'll be playing college ball.
ESPN loves to label young players as "NEXT" so, lets see if the US can't get a soccer player on the cover once, hmm?
With ESPN's partnership with soccer leagues, enhanced coverage gives US players an outlet to shine through to the masses once they hit the pro scene.
In all honesty, all Americans want is a winner.
A winner in the World Cup. A winner in the World Baseball Classic. A winner in the Olympics.
If these are the expectations, fans will never be satisfied. However, adding players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry, will not do the job to get USA soccer where the sport is headed.
The game needs home-grown talent we can follow, the stories behind championships or dynasties. That is how the MLS will get a seat at the table with the big five in American sports.