Depending on who you ask the Major League Soccer (MLS) – America’s top football (soccer) league – is either a precursor to the rise of the New World to eventual dominance of the sport, or doomed to remain a lackluster cross-Atlantic cousin to Europe’s powerhouses of the sport.

The United States did incredibly well in the recently concluded FIFA World Cup this summer thanks to Clint Dempsey (and despite Landon Donovan’s absence), falling heroically to a determined Belgian offense that was touted as one of the dark horses of the tournament with its roster full of big-names. It wasn’t the first time soccer-not-so-mad America had done better than anyone expected at a World Cup. The 2002 edition saw them fumble only against Germany and the impenetrable force-field Oliver Kahn had put up.

But those rousing performances invariably give way to long periods of pointlessness in American soccer as the country waits for the next World Cup. That’s where the MLS ought to come in, and strive to keep the drumbeat going. But in a country awash with NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL merchandise, you’re left with the sinking feeling the only people who wouldn’t mind being seen in a Major League Soccer team jersey are either hispters or die-hard contrarians.

So how does a league with quite possibly even lesser recognition than the National Lacrosse League in some parts of the country keep the sport’s flag flying in the dreary years between two World Cups?

Manchester City: Champions of England 2013-14Well, for starters, the Major League Soccer is finally taking itself seriously. They might be tempted to take the oligarch route or look for a rich Middle Eastern benefactor a la Manchester City, but that isn’t the best bet. Throwing more money into a sport isn’t going to do much to attract viewership and attendance. What they need to do instead is find the biggest names, in their prime, willing to play for them.

It goes without saying that it would be career suicide for any player in the European leagues (hoping to have a crack at entering or saving his place in the national team) to play soccer in the MLS. Hobbled by geography, time-zone and poor brand recognition, the Major League Soccer has only managed to attract rapidly aging stars well past their prime looking to spend the final years of their career in a place where they could vegetate peacefully.

David Beckham’s acquisition by the LA Galaxy was certainly a coup, and he certainly turned more than a few pairs of eyes with his celebrity power. But nobody was in any doubts as to what that would mean for the MLS: this was a marquee signing meant to generate revenue and not actual interest in the sport. Beckham’s star has remained high but most people in the North American continent haven’t seen him kick a ball in his team’s colors.

They may be forgiven for forgetting what it is that actually made him famous to begin with.

Thierry+Henry_copyright_zimbio_dot_comThe MLS had another coup in the arrival of French hitman Thierry Henry into their fold, but by then the sun over the French empire had well and truly set and Henry had become infamous for handling the ball against Ireland in a World Cup qualifier. To his credit, he did put that negative publicity behind him – not that the media spotlight was all bad for the MLS – by featuring in the Major League Soccer Best XI as one of its two best forwards for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

No points for guessing that none of his exploits at the New York Red Bulls made it to Youtube’s most watched list. There are few exercises as pronounced in futility as big name stars trying to lift the league, long after their knees have given way and buckled under them.

Fast forward to present times, and new club New York City FC made a splash by signing Frank Lampard and David Villas – both of whom, despite their national team’s ignominous exits from the World Cup, still have some top-class football left in them. Orlando City, also set to enter the league in 2015, has Kaka on its roster after the Brazilian agreed a mutual termination of his contract with AC Milan.

Of these signings, it’s Frank Lampard and David Villa that should give proponents of the sport, the most hope here in the United States. These are stars who would’ve made it into any of Europe’s top teams, for at least another couple of years. It may not seem like much, but it’s still better than being a retirement home for stars who have effectively hung up their boots.

Frank Lampard - Essential to Mourinho against EvertonThere’s no better proof of this sea-change in attitude than Frank Lampard’s loan spell to Manchester City for 6 months, while New York City FC is fully incorporated into the league, come 2015. If the best team in England, and the defending champions, still has use for you then you’re not an afterthought by any measure of imagination.

Villa may have opted for Melbourne City FC, but there’s no denying he too would have been good enough for a loan spell at a top European side. Between the two of them, they might not be prime property, but they are steals for a league used to subsisting on leftovers.

Once Lampard, Villa and Kaka make the successful transition, you can expect newer clubs to be formed and the Major League Soccer to get even bolder in its acquisitions – perhaps even breaking the age-30 floor and acquire a star in his late 20s! For a competitive league, all the clubs are in it together – and bringing in the big stars at their primes is no longer a zero sum game.

Sara Bareilles said it best; we just want to see the MLS be brave.

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