Steve Davis
Monday August 2nd, 2010

Keeping up with the sparse roster of MLS Designated Players has generally been a breeze up to now.

But Major League Soccer's drive to add more of these high-profile stars is now bearing fruit. Teams are adding pricey talent at a faster clip, and it's a stretch for even the best of MLS fans to keep up.

Within that burgeoning roster of Designated Players, now up to 11, some are more weighty than others.

Decorated and talented French attacker Thierry Henry, of course, will be the biggest summer signing. But not far behind Henry's ballyhooed arrival will be that of Mexican international Rafael Marquez, whose signing was made official Monday by MLS and who'll be officially unveiled Tuesday by the New York Red Bulls.

Landing the current captain of Mexico's national team is a huge score for the league, one that will play big on Spanish-language outlets. Marquez (you'll generally see him referred to as Rafa Marquez) is surely near the top of the totem poll of Mexican futbol heroes.

His addition at Red Bull Arena also signaled what looks like an official arms race in MLS, as the club from New York became the first to add a third DP; does anybody think AEG, the aggressive ownership group for the L.A. Galaxy, is going to sit idly by while all the pomp and pub leans toward the East coast?

This is what the bullish owners of MLS wanted; now they have it, so we'll see where it takes them.

Marquez has been a regular at FC Barcelona, one of the world's premier clubs, since 2003. At 31, he still seems to have plenty of good soccer left. So he's the kind of player who can summon credibility, not just cameras.

"The captain of the Mexican national team, a guy who had a great World Cup, a long-time Barcelona player, if we could have him in MLS, it would really give us a big boost of credibility and I think would be exciting for our fans," MLS commissioner Don Garber said last week before Monday's announcement.

In terms of ability to provide an instant publicity and attendance bounce, DPs fall squarely in two categories. There are talented but lesser heralded players who can assist teams and boost collective MLS quality without exactly breaking the bank. Good examples are the Seattle Sounders' pair of recent DP signings, Swiss forward Blaise Nkufo and Uruguayan international midfielder Alvaro Fernandez. Both are fresh off World Cup duty for their countries.

Neither of these guys is likely to move the attendance needle in the short term, although they could certainly move things forward in the difficult-to-quantify realm of long-term growth. Simply put, if the quality of the overall product climbs gradually, to too will crowd counts and TV ratings, which beget greater sponsorship and better TV rights deals, which add money to the coffers to attract even more stars who can add further to the quality ... and so the cycle goes.

Marquez, on the other hand, can shock the system into action more immediately. He's on the short list of guys with the right makeup to do so.

"He'd be a big draw for all us, not just for his home club," Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "Mexican players have broad appeal and they sell tickets in MLS. And if you're talking about trying to convert fans to MLS, that's a mechanism and a means to do it."

Converting soccer fans into MLS supporters is the way of MLS today; more and more, the market focus has turned to attracting urban core soccer supporters and Latino fans, who have their favorite foreign teams but may be indifferent on MLS.

Everyone remembers David Beckham's first MLS go-round in 2007, as some clubs moved matches to larger stadiums or saw their usual grounds fill up amid the Becks tsunami. That's unlikely to happen with Marquez, although his appeal could look something like Cuauhtemoc Blanco's first whirl around the MLS dance floor.

But even Beckham and Blanco couldn't sustain the same level of interest as the newness wore off. Lagerwey sees something similar happening with Marquez. That's why he likes to look at the bigger picture when he considers the value of these players.

"That's all about increasing quality and slowing adding to our Hispanic fan base and urban fan base," Lagerwey said.

Clearly, one of the best ways to boost attendance and interest around Red Bull Arena is through winning. Major League Soccer is now in its 15th season and the club in New York has generally toggled between mediocre and downright pitiful. The next really great Red Bulls campaign will be their first; the club has never won a major domestic championship.

That's where Marquez's signing becomes particularly interesting. Everybody knows that defense wins championships. And everybody can see that almost every major MLS foreign signing, from the early stars who were de facto DPs to the men bestowed with the official designation after 2007, have been attackers. Toronto's Julian de Guzman, who plays a linking midfield role at BMO, is the closest thing to a "defensive" player to ever wear the DP badge.

That changes with Marquez, who generally played center back for Barcelona and who manned a defensive midfield spot for Mexico during World Cup 2010.

A good holding midfielder who leads and orchestrates and who links the lines in possession is worth his weight in gold. Marquez can do so -- assuming he still has the wheels and the will to deal with the sometimes chaotic MLS game and the stamina to endure travel like he's never seen before.

Alongside fellow DPs Juan Pablo Angel and Henry, Marquez and the Red Bulls suddenly have more talent and leadership than ever -- and a real chance to make proper noise come playoff time in late October.

If that happens, that could be Marquez's true MLS legacy.

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