“MLS has the potential to be one of the top leagues in the world,” David Beckham told FIFA.com with no sense of irony last year. Major League Soccer’s investment in “the big names in the game,” as the former England captain calls them, makes what seemed impossible a decade earlier suddenly seem a distinct possibility. The likes of Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez, Robbie Keane and Beckham himself are headlining a league on the rise.

Like the United States, MLS has had a complicated, symbiotic and challenging relationship with those coming from foreign shores in search of a home. Over the course of the fledgling league’s 16 years, it has boasted players from six continents and over 100 countries, from Angola to Australia and all points in between. Some failed, some starred and some just drifted away.

The North American top flight first flirted with courting foreign stars, largely in their declining years, in its very first season of 1996. The MetroStars (now Red Bull New York) boasted former AC Milan mainstay Roberto Donadoni, while LA Galaxy had colourful Mexico international goalkeeper-cum-striker Jorge Campos in the side. The now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny featured Colombian creator Carlos Valderrama languidly patrolling the middle of the park, and DC United, who won three of the first four MLS titles, were led by Bolivian sensation Marco Etcheverry, who was soon joined by compatriot and goal-hero Jaime Moreno, still regarded by many as the league’s best all-time player.

Many of these foreign stars were aimed to appeal to the ethnic make-up of the areas where they were based. New York’s huge Italian-American population was naturally more engaged with Donadoni, and the same with Mexican Campos in LA. Shortly after the initial wave of aging foreign stars, another group began to emerge. German legend and FIFA World Cup™ winner Lothar Matthaus and fiery Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov, Walter Zenga in Boston, former Poland captain Petr Nowak for Chicago’s Fire, Branco of Brazil and Youri Djorkaeff, a FIFA World Cup winner with France in 1998, were just some of big names.

Soon after, the buzz of the new league began to soften and the appeal of its gang of fading foreign stars began to wane, MLS started to focus more on the production of domestic talent. Between 1998 and 2002, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard took their first steps in the league, going on to form the crux of a much-improved USA national side.

Bringing in big names from abroad is huge and MLS needs to keep doing it.

New York Red Bull and Jamaica international Dane Richards

A fateful ‘07
However, in its essence, MLS is, and always has been, a balancing act between the potential of homegrown American and Canadian players and those coming from abroad. In 2007, the league introduced a ‘designated player’ rule to allow each team the option to obtain a big star and break the strict salary cap in place up to that point. That same year, the number of foreign players allowed in each team was raised to eight.

What followed was a new influx of foreign players and increased interest in the league, which expanded into Canada and now consists of 18 teams. Guillermo Barros Schelotto of Argentina led Columbus Crew to a first title; Mexican icon Cuauhtémoc Blanco lined up in Chicago and Freddy Ljungberg graced expansion club Seattle Sounders. In the league’s biggest coup, mainstream icon Beckham left Real Madrid to sign with Southern California side LA Galaxy, where he plays alongside homegrown golden-boy Donovan and Irish international standout Robbie Keane.

On the other coast, in New York, fans are being treated to another star-studded outfit in the Red Bulls. Former Arsenal ace and FIFA World Cup winner with France, Thierry Henry, and Mexico and Barcelona stalwart Rafa Marquez are currently leading the lines for a side with big ambitions. “Bringing in big names from abroad is huge and MLS needs to keep doing it,” said Jamaican Red Bulls’ winger Dane Richards, who admits to improving as a player thanks to the arrival of such high-profile team-mates. “With guys like this in the league, the quality can only get better and better.”

The list of players in Europe who are talking about MLS as a possible destination seems only to be growing. In recent months Spanish legend Raul, Zlatan Ibrahimovic of AC Milan and Sweden and Chelsea’s Nikolas Anelka have spoken about a possible future in the league where Beckham believes “anything is possible.”