And the rich get richer.
Already sporting the best frontline tandem in Major League Soccer in the form of Juan Pablo Angel and his fellow designated player, Thierry Henry, the New York Red Bulls have added Henry's former Barcelona teammate Rafael Marquez.
Getting a mega-watt star like Thierry Henry was a big deal—he's a global brand, and he's a scorer. Adding a player like Marquez, the captain of the Mexican national team, might be an even bigger deal.
Rafa, a central defender for Barcelona, plays defensive midfielder for his national team. The Red Bulls plan to use him in that midfielder role as well. In addition to choking off the opponents attacking runs, Marquez will excel at turning defense into offense and be the primary link between the two. Just picture a Marquez to Henry to Angel counterattack—scary stuff.
Like Henry, Marquez is just 31 years old. Like Henry, he does not consider MLS a retirement home. Neither player is that far removed from his prime and both are here to add to their glory (win titles), not bask in it.
While not hugely popular with fans of the U.S. national team (his flying head butt of Cobi Jones during the 2002 World Cup won't soon be forgotten), he will be a huge hit with the sizable Mexican population in New York and around the country. This is especially important given Cuauhtemoc Blanco's decision to not return to the Chicago Fire this season.
The Red Bulls have become the first MLS team to take advantage of a recent rule change that allows teams to sign up to three designated players whose salary does not count against the salary cap ($350,000 counts toward the cap and is paid by the league, the remainder is paid by the team's owners). New York now has the highest payroll in MLS history.
Like their baseball counterpart, the New York Yankees, the talent and payroll level of the Red Bulls has raised expectations significantly. Already sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference (fourth overall), New York quite simply needs to win their first MLS Cup to validate their spending. Anything less will be a major disappointment for fans of both the Red Bulls and MLS.
If New York is able to import its way to a title, two results could follow: other MLS teams (are you listening New England!?) will have to open the wallets if they want to compete, and more elite-level talent could come to view MLS as an attractive resume builder.
MLS has done a fantastic job growing the league over the last 15 years, but it is obvious that the talent level needs to increase if the league is to flourish. There could be no greater PR campaign than seeing the L.A. Galaxy squaring off against the Red Bulls in the finals.
Marquez is slated to make his Red Bulls debut on Sunday against the Chicago Fire. He is expected to start in what is being billed as a "DP Showdown." The Fire have two designated players of their own (and are looking to obtain a third) in Mexican forward Nerry Castillo and Swedish midfielder Freddy Ljungberg. The game is at 9PM (ET) and will be shown on ESPN2.