By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Oct 26, 2015) US Soccer Players – Fans love to get into arguments over who is the best player in the world or who deserves to be considered the best all time. What seldom makes the conversation is which foreign-born player made the biggest impact on American soccer. In a year highlighted by the arrival of many big stars (both budding and past their primes), the discussion is one worth having now that the MLS regular season has come to a dramatic close.
Soccer in this country is unique compared to other nations. For example, when a foreigner signs with an English club he’s supposed to raise the stature of that particular team. In this country, he also serves as an ambassador to help sell the sport, raise the game’s profile, and generate media interest. It’s a tall order for any single player.
If that’s the measuring stick (and most will agree it is), then Pele is the one to have accomplished that. This past June marked the 40 anniversary of the Brazilian superstar signing with the New York Cosmos, igniting what many have argued is a soccer boom that is felt to this day. The North American Soccer League, which was struggling to gain acceptance and fans at that point, grew massively as a result and other superstars followed in Pele’s footsteps.
In a 2007 interview I conducted with Pele for US Soccer Players, the Brazilian legend said, “When I came, soccer here was in its early stages. No one played soccer except in college. It was very hard work to get those 70,000 people to come to Giants Stadium to watch us. It was beautiful. It was a great time. Of course, I had help. I had Franz Beckenbauer. I had Carlos Alberto. I had Giorgio Chinaglia.”
Pele only played with the Cosmos for three years before retiring. One of the players Pele mentioned was Chinaglia, who died in 2012 at age 65. The Italian striker scored an astounding 262 goals to become the NASL’s all-time leading scorer after leaving Lazio while still in his prime. Chinaglia’s heroics in front of goal made him a New York hero. His giant ego and brash style often made him envious of Pele. When people asked Chinaglia years later if he had played with Pele, the Italian, in typical fashion, was famous for telling people that the Brazilian had played with him.
In that 2007 interview, Pele also claimed that David Beckham – who arrived later that summer – would have a difficult time in Major League Soccer. “For him it will be very, very hard,” Pele said of Beckham at the time. “Football here now is very, very strong. He has to prove himself on the field. Everyone is expecting him to do well and he has to show them. The level of play here is very good now.”
Beckham did have a rough start, but eventually blossomed into the star MLS and the Los Angeles Galaxy had banked on. Beckham’s arrival helped bring other foreign players that teams were able to sign as Designated Players, something that came to be called the “Beckham Rule.” A notable DP was Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls) and Robbie Keane (Los Angeles Galaxy), two players who found a lot of success in MLS in recent years.
Who deserves to be recognized as the best foreigner to ever play in a US league? Best way to answer that is that no one player can be singled out. Sure, you can try and rank them using all kinds of measures like goals scored, assists or trophies won. But this is about much more than that. Therefore, I decided to take an approach comparing the best players to Mount Rushmore, the massive granite sculpture in South Dakota featuring the faces of four of the most-important US presidents in history.
The first face -- that of George Washington -- goes to Pele. Like Washington, he started it all. He came over at a time when the NASL was still growing. A three-time World Cup champion and the most-recognized soccer player (if not athlete) on the planet at the time, Pele opted to sign with the Cosmos, which inspired a generation of future US players (like Tony Meola, Tab Ramos and John Harkes), along with millions of other kids across the country.
The next face, Thomas Jefferson, goes to Chinaglia. As Jefferson was a contemporary of Washington, Chinaglia played alongside Pele. Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence; Chinaglia wrote the NASL record books – scoring goals and winning titles with the Cosmos while making the club one of the most-popular in the world. He lent credibility to the league and team years after Pele had retired. More importantly, Europeans realized that soccer could succeed and thrive in the United States. The Cosmos remain a global brand to this day.
The next face on Mount Rushmore, that of Theodore Roosevelt, represents a new era in American history. Roosevelt knew how to get attention, traveled the world and did it with an unorthodox cowboy style. The obvious soccer analogy is David Beckham. Although the move to sign the English superstar by the Galaxy in 2007 was seen as spectacular by Major League Soccer, many blasted the move as a marketing gimmick. At first it appeared that way, but Beckham eventually settled in with the team, helping the Galaxy win the MLS Cup trophy in 2011 and 2012.
Finally, the fourth and final face, that of Abraham Lincoln, goes to Thierry Henry. I’ve already argued that the Frenchman was the best Designated Player in MLS history. A year later, that still holds true. To quote from that column: “How do you measure success? Some say it’s the number of championships won. In that case, Robbie Keane and Beckham would make your list. But DPs are also about making your team – and your teammates – better players. In that case, one has to argue in favor of Thierry Henry of the Red Bulls.”
Indeed, Henry made those around him better – the very reason for creating the designated player rule – and was able to re-energize a fan base in the league’s biggest market. In MLS, he’ll be remembered as a team player, part of an impressive quartet of foreign stars who have made American soccer what it is today.
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