When the Sounders were in the United Soccer Leagues’ first division, coach Brian Schmetzer used to say there is little difference between the top half of a USL roster and the bottom half of a Major League Soccer roster.
And he might be right.
But it’s the top half of an MLS roster that sells the tickets. That top handful of players – really, maybe just the top one or two players on each team – could be the No. 1 reason why the MLS Sounders are drawing 29,000 fans per game while the USL Sounders drew a relative handful.
Seattle’s schedule offers a timely example.
Just past is Seattle’s 1-1 draw in Chicago and the Fire’s bigger-than-life star Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Just ahead is a Sunday home date with the Los Angeles Galaxy. And the black hole of buzz for that match is attributable to the absence of L.A.’s David Beckham.
For Chicago, Blanco is everything an MLS designated player should be: a talent who matters on the pitch, and a personality who matters at the ticket window.
Every bit of what makes Blanco special was on display Saturday at Toyota Park. There he was trotting around the field and looking a lot like a Thursday-night-beer-league player. Right up until the ball met his foot. Then the magic happened. His control is amazing. His accuracy was a bit off, but never to the point where you doubted he might make something happen.
In the 68th minute, Blanco received the ball in the penalty area, faked one way, and then released a pass to the top of the box where Marco Pappa sent it home.
That play may have salvaged the Fire’s fifth draw of the season from what would have been its first loss. And that’s plenty.
But it shouldn’t be enough for an MLS designated player; not enough for Blanco’s nearly $3 million salary, which makes him the second-highest-paid player in the league. For that kind of money, you also need star power; and Blanco has that, too.
He does not appear to suffer fools gladly. And yet he seems to see himself surrounded by them: A teammate who messes up; an opponent who makes an unacceptable foul – more than a foul – an affront; and, of course, a referee who misses it all.
Time after time, there was Blanco, hands raised, begging for justice he will never find down here among the mortals.
It was great theater, and every Sounders fan should rush to the calendar and circle July 25 when the endlessly entertaining Blanco comes to Qwest Field.
While there they also can erase that red circle around this coming Sunday: the day when Beckham was supposed to arrive.
Beckham makes more than three times what Blanco makes. And he might have been worth if he were around.
The Galaxy signed Beckham in July 2007 not as the world’s best player but as the world’s best-known player – which is probably more useful for MLS.
Many folks who can’t explain the offsides rule knew “Bend it Like Beckham.” Or they knew Beckham’s wife, Victoria, who is also known as Posh Spice.
Tickets sales jumped. Jersey sales jumped. Media coverage jumped. Mission accomplished.
However, during the MLS off-season Beckham was loaned to AC Milan, and it proved to be such a good match that they negotiated a delay in his return. In exchange for allowing Beckham to remain through the end of the Italian season, MLS gets $10 million and a promise that he will report to Los Angeles on July 1.
That makes winners all around. Except for Sounders fans, who will get to watch Beckham on TV when Seattle visits the Galaxy on Aug. 15. But this weekend, they will have to make do with an in-person look at the considerable skills of Landon Donovan.
He’s a star at the top of his game – the kind of player that MLS has and USL doesn’t.
But he’s not a superstar.
Beckham will be missed.