Two key players in the MLS playoffs were instrumental in helping their teams in the first leg of their respective aggregate-score series this past weekend. Despite their contributions, though, they and their teammates know full well that come January, they won't return to their current clubs for the preseason, but instead will be with other teams in other countries.
But this isn't just about David Beckham and Cuauhtémoc Blanco. Yura Movsisyan and Chris Rolfe are also on their way out once the MLS playoffs wrap up.
In fact, Movsisyan, who assisted on the 88th-minute goal that gave Real Salt Lake a 1-0 victory against the defending champion Columbus Crew, and Rolfe, who scored the Chicago Fire's only goal in a 2-1 loss to the New England Revolution, will both be joining teams in Denmark. Movsisyan has agreed to transfer to Randers, while Rolfe is signed on to Aalborg BK.
Of course, Movsisyan and Rolfe pale in comparison, reputation-wise, to Beckham and Blanco, arguably the two biggest stars in MLS. The idea that professionals can focus on helping their teams in the here and now even while other plans have been made for their future has gotten no shortage of ink lately, even if Beckham and Blanco are getting set to fly the MLS coop if only for a while.
In Blanco's case, in particular, there seemed to be a bit of pique involved, as the star announced his move to Veracruz, a club in Mexico's second division, on his Web site, instead of through the Fire's media staff. Though the Chicago club is still negotiating for Blanco's return after the 2010 World Cup, sources at the organization expressed some puzzlement at the midfielder's move.
The Fire had known for some time that Blanco was looking to keep his form by playing with a club in Mexico, so the news of a deal there didn't come as a surprise. What was more of a shock was that Blanco went to a second-division team.
Everyone can understand the need for an older player to get game time and maintain form -- that's the reason repeated ad nauseam for Beckham's return to AC Milan. However, if Blanco needs to stay sharp, how is he going to do that in the Mexican second division?
One clear factor is money. Blanco signed a massive contract with Veracruz, but the difference between the Mexican second division and the World Cup is significant and, simply put, MLS would have offered better competition preparation. Another element that may have influenced Blanco, though, is that Mexico national-team coach Javier Aguirre is setting up an extended training period before the World Cup. FIFA mandates 20 days in advance of the competition for clubs to release players on World Cup rosters, but Aguirre reportedly wants more than twice that -- around two months.
It's unlikely that Barcelona is going to let Rafael Márquez go that early, or that Arsenal releases Carlos Vela at the whim of Aguirre. But after saving Mexico's World Cup campaign, Aguirre can pretty much ask anything of the club owners in Mexico. If Aguirre wants Blanco and other players based in the country to come in way ahead of the mandated time, it will happen.
If Blanco had agreed to come back to the Fire, he'd have an offseason's rest, a full preseason and then a good seven to eight weeks of games before joining the Mexican team. But MLS and the Fire wouldn't be happy about a release that far in advance of the World Cup. The question of whether the timing of Blanco's announcement is a detriment and distraction to his teammates is a valid one, and that scenario applies to Beckham as well, since the news of his deal with AC Milan had been imminent for weeks until it was finally announced on Monday.
Yet the Fire maintain that Blanco's situation is not a problem, and the midfielder did in fact play well in Chicago's playoff game, which indicates that he's still capable of performing now, even if he has made other plans for 2010. Similarly, Beckham has buckled down in Los Angeles, playing quite well, if not superbly, for the Galaxy. Also, in Beckham's case, most of the teasing talk about signing with AC Milan has come from the Italian club, not Beckham himself, who has focused more on the Galaxy's playoff campaign.
It will come as no surprise to the Galaxy, either, that a deal for Beckham to go on loan with Milan from January to the end of the World Cup has been finalized. "We handled it this year; we can handle it again," Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said about missing Beckham for half of the next MLS season.
The speculation is that Beckham's loan deal to AC Milan was worked out even before the Englishman returned to MLS this summer, but Arena would only hint at such an arrangement by saying enigmatically, "We know more than people think we do."
It's true the elimination format of the playoffs is unforgiving, and the teams that are mentally strong often prevail over those with talent but questionable discipline. Yet the idea that the future plans of one person could derail an entire roster is unlikely. If a team were so easily pulled off course from reaching its title dreams, it's hard to see that it would otherwise be worthy of it.
Granted, uncertainty is never an ideal situation, but it's also a fact of life. Nothing is guaranteed for any player, and there are more than a few in MLS playing in the last year of their contracts, knowing full well the teams they're working hard to advance to the championship could let them go at season's end.
Blanco and Beckham are not, like Rolfe and Movsisyan, in the spring of their careers. Oddly enough, the stars might be doing MLS a small favor: If they aren't playing in the league right before World Cup action, it will be hard for others to blame MLS if they perform badly. Yet it's more likely the two veterans will turn in competent, professional displays. Their clubs should expect no less from them this playoff season, no matter what lies ahead in the new year.