With the recent announcement by MLS that teams will have the ability to add two or even three designated players to their rosters, the rumor mill is already rife with names of potential imports (one being Mexico's Pavel Pardo to the Galaxy). Leaving aside a detailed discussion of whether MLS will begin to morph into a league of haves and have-nots -- the quick answer being possibly, but only to a degree and certainly unlike that of European leagues because of the existing salary cap -- the question will be what type of players teams bring in.
With most teams still unlikely to be willing to pay any sort of a transfer fee, and with foreign players in the prime of their career having zero interest in coming to MLS, it's inevitable that the focus largely will be on thirtysomething players who are free agents this summer. This, of course, isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the signings of Juan Pablo Angel and Guillermo Barros Schelotto have proved. It's also important to temper the excitement and take a more realistic approach about the viability of certain targets. For example, while a player like Chelsea midfielder Michael Ballack is out of contract this summer, his wage demands (probably at least $7.5 million annually) and belief that he can still play at the highest levels preclude any move to MLS.
So aside from the aforementioned Pardo, who should MLS teams target? Here's a list of 10 players (most of whom will be out of contract this summer):
1. Thierry Henry, F, Barcelona, 32 -- Short of managing to persuade Zinedine Zidane to come out of retirement, there isn't an active player willing to come to MLS who can bring the type of attention that came with David Beckham's arrival back in 2007. However, in terms of actual cachet among soccer fans, the signing of Henry would arguably outstrip that of Beckham. All the stars are aligned accordingly: As his international career with France winds down with a likely swan song in South Africa, Henry has also found himself marginalized this season at Barcelona. He's also long spoken of his desire to play in the U.S., with a stated preference for New York. The only catch is that Henry's contract runs for another year, and it's hard to see any MLS team paying the required transfer fee, on top of a huge wage package. The Red Bulls will be tempted to step up to the plate and may well bid, but ultimately I suspect Henry will move somewhere else in Europe this summer on a two-year deal before arriving in MLS when he's 34.
2. Roy Makaay, F, Feyenoord, 35 -- The former Dutch international has been a veritable goal-scoring machine over the years, with more than 300. He shows no sign of slowing down either, notching 30 goals the past three seasons in the Eredivisie.
3. Robert Pires, M, Villarreal, 36 -- Obviously Pires is no longer the force he was at Arsenal (where, at one point, he was arguably the best left-sided midfielder in the world), but he's still a quality player with creative flair. Not to mention, imagine the possibilities if Seattle persauded him to team up once more with former Arsenal teammate Freddie Ljungberg at Qwest Field.
4. Omar Bravo, F, Guadalajara, 30 -- There are plenty of benefits for signing Bravo. As a huge fan favorite and prolific scorer in the Mexican league for many years, the Mexican international would help MLS draw more of the Hispanic fan base in the U.S. Bravo failed in his one European stint with Deportivo de La Coruna, but he'd be likely to find the going in MLS much easier.
5. Jesper Gronkjaer, M/F, Copenhagen, 32 -- While Gronkjaer has never scaled the heights that were expected of him (he was Denmark's highest-priced player ever when Chelsea paid about $11.5 million for him in 2000), he's had a solid club and international career. Quick, technical and direct, Gronjkaer is comfortable operating either as a winger or a supporting striker.
6. Bernardo Romeo, F, San Lorenzo, 32 -- A prolific scorer at the youth international levels for Argentina (he scored six goals for the U-20 team that won the 1997 U-20 World Cup), Romeo never really cracked the senior setup. At the club level, though, he's had success in both the Argentine league and in various stints across Europe (most notably at Hamburg between 2002-05).
7. Shinji Ono, M, Shimizu S-Pulse, 30 -- Once touted as the natural successor to Japanese icon Hidetoshi Nakata, Ono never quite lived up to that billing. However, he's still a popular name in Asia and has had solid spells in Europe in both the Eredivisie and the Bundesliga. Ono brings vision, technique and strong passing skills.
8. Yildiray Basturk, M, Blackburn, 31 -- Leverkusen fans will remember the pint-sized schemer, who was a key catalyst for the superb Leverkusen teams of the early 2000s. The longtime Bundesliga veteran is currently with Premiershisp side Blackburn (he joined in January), but has seen little playing time. A quick, creative player, he'd be perfect for a MLS team seeking a playmaker.
9. Fernando Morientes, F, Marseilles, 34 -- The former Real Madrid and Spain international has seen his goal production and playing time diminish over the last three years, but he's still superb in the air. Morientes is the type of player who is dependent on service from the wing, and with most MLS teams focused on delivering the ball from the flanks, he could prosper in the U.S.
10. Lucas Castroman, M/F, Racing, 29 -- Castroman could be the highest-risk signing on this list, but given his relative youth, he also has one of the highest upsides. He had a disastrous short spell with Mexico's Club America in 2007, which was largely marred by injuries and disciplinary issues, but has since settled back in Argentina with Racing. Once tipped to become a regular at the international level when he starred for Velez, Castroman can operate as a winger or striker.