There’s a gutsy upstart soccer league in England that has a pretty good idea on its hands.
Launched in 1992, according to its website, the Premier League isn’t nearly as ancient or traditional as many of its continental competitors. But what it lacks in history, it’s more than made up for in quality. Wealthy owners and lucrative TV contracts have paved the way for the acquisition of many of the best players and managers from around the world, transforming what was once a quaint competition between industrial towns in northern England and the Midlands into a veritable global all-star circuit.
Stars like that should be celebrated, even once they’ve faded. And so the Premier League announced Thursday the establishment of its own hall of fame, which will open its (apparently virtual) doors on March 19 with the induction of its first two members.
“Players must be retired, and only a player's Premier League career is considered in their candidacy,” the league explained. An individual’s performance in other leagues or with his national team, and the reputation that comes with it, isn’t relevant. This is about telling the Premier League’s story.
MLS is just a bit younger than the Premier League, having kicked off in 1996. That makes this season, which begins Saturday, the American/Canadian league’s 25th. That seems like enough time to have minted a legend or two. But MLS doesn’t have a hall of fame. Instead, all of U.S. soccer—international and club, pro and amateur, men’s and women’s—is mixed together in the National Soccer Hall of Fame housed in a new facility in Frisco, Texas. Lately, however, there’s been no mix. While NASL stars from the 1970s once were welcomed, modern voters seem to care only about U.S. national team exploits, even though non-U.S. nationals are eligible for induction (and with the likes of Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra failing to get in, voters’ judgment on that front appears to be lacking as well).
It’s dumb, borderline jingoistic and it undercuts the NSHOF as an institution by ensuring it fails to tell a massive part of the American soccer story—the growth of its domestic professional league.
And so at the start of its 25th season, MLS should follow the Premier League’s lead and establish its own hall of fame. Not a website, but an actual, brick and mortar museum where fans can come and celebrate the history of the league.
There should be Canton-style busts of the inductees, plaques detailing their accomplishments, and this being the 21st century, loads of interactive attractions. The possibilities for those are so numerous and sound like so much fun, it’s amazing this hasn’t happened already.
—Put on your pair of Mike Magee signature goalie gloves purchased at the Hall’s gift shop and try to save the Sebastian Giovinco free kick coming from the specially-modified JUGS machine.
—Or, if you’re really brave, let the JUGS help you feel the rush of a Marco Etcheverry corner kick that somehow speeds up as it swerves toward your face.
—Lace up your cleats and challenge a virtual Andrea Pirlo to a foot race.
—Or challenge your friends to some supporters’ section karaoke and learn the lyrics to ‘Believe,’ ‘You Are My Sunshine,' ‘Doop,’ the ‘Fire Anthem’ and more.
—Inside a state-of-the-art VR helmet, you can instantly become a fourth official standing between Peter Vermes and Ben Olsen. Or, you can be a 2008 MLS player shopping at a virtual grocery store while earning the league minimum salary of $12,900.
—Take a nap on cement like a Timbers Army member on line. Be awakened by the North Star Bell.
—Write and deliver a moving speech that will convince your friends in the East Village to a accompany you all the way out to Red Bull Arena.
—Put on an Orlando City jersey and watch highlights of other teams in the MLS Cup playoffs.
—Stop by the in-house barber shop and get your hair styled like Carlos Valderrama or Clint Mathis.
—Design your own uniform with help from well-paid league and Adidas creatives. This being MLS, you’ll be able to choose a white shirt, white shorts, white socks combo or a black shirt, black shorts, black socks combo. So fresh. So clean.
In addition to the Mike Magee gloves, the gift shop will feature Steven Lenhart Chia Pets, “Crime Of The Century” T-shirts, a full complement of Pan-Pacific Championship merchandise, chainsaws and 50% off sales on all Zlatan jerseys and gear with the new Chicago Fire logo. In the cafeteria, an animatronic Mark Abbott will entertain kids by explaining the difference between GAM and TAM, while you can choose from a selection of coffees curated by Brian Schmetzer and dine on the Mexican lasagna formerly served at RFK Stadium.
But the centerpiece of the MLS Hall of Fame, of course, is the inductees. And unlike the Premier League’s paltry two, the pretend MLS version should open its doors wide to an inaugural class of 25 men in recognition of this 25th season.
Picking that class won’t be easy, because, again, anything a player did outside MLS doesn’t matter. NSHOF voters are supposed to consider careers in totality. That way, recently retired greats like Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey are sure (one would hope) to be honored. But did they do enough in MLS to make the cut here? Did predecessors like John Harkes and Tab Ramos? Then there are all the foreign-born legends, some of whom made lasting impacts in just a few seasons. David Beckham and David Villa graced MLS for only a small portion of their decorated careers, but their legacy can’t be measured in just goals and assists.
A hall of fame should tell the story of a sport. So here’s a stab at the first 25 chapters of MLS’s. The parameters are identical to the Premier League’s: be a player, be retired and only MLS performance matters. There are deserving men left out. There will be future classes, and maybe a veterans committee. But these 25 should be in.
THE INAUGURAL CLASS
Jeff Agoos, D (D.C. United, San Jose Earthquakes, New York Red Bulls) - Agoos could play central or outside and was the defensive anchor for five MLS Cup champions during his 10 seasons in the league.
Chris Armas, MF (LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire) - The sturdy and skillful defensive midfielder was a five-time Best XI selection and helped Chicago to six trophies.
DaMarcus Beasley, D/MF (Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo) - Brilliant as an attacking winger before leaving for Europe and a stand-out at left back upon his return, Beasley helped Chicago and Houston to trophies and was a five-time All-Star.
David Beckham, MF (LA Galaxy) - His 2007 arrival marked the turning point for a league that’s grown exponentially since. MLS isn’t modern MLS without Beckham, who helped LA to two championships.
Mauricio Cienfuegos, MF (LA Galaxy) - The Salvadoran playmaker was the heart and soul of the early Galaxy squads. Had more than 90 MLS assists, won five major titles and was Best XI three times.
Jeff Cunningham, F (Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake, Toronto FC, FC Dallas) - Underappreciated striker hit double-digits 12 times on the way to becoming MLS’s third all-time leading scorer.
Dwayne De Rosario, MF/F (San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo, Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, D.C. United) - His creativity, confidence and breathtaking skill resulted in four MLS Cup titles, an MVP award and six Best XI appearances.
Landon Donovan, MF/F (San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy) - He could have the longest plaque in the Hall or the shortest: simply put, the best and most accomplished player in MLS history.
Marco Etcheverry, MF (D.C. United) - The Bolivian maestro was the creative inspiration and the menace behind D.C.’s dynasty. Also won league MVP and MLS Cup MVP.
Kevin Hartman, GK (LA Galaxy, Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas) - Retired as the leader in just about every statistical category. Backstopped LA to two MLS Cups and the 2000 Concacaf title.
Cobi Jones, MF (LA Galaxy) - Perhaps the most productive of MLS’s original signings, Jones played over 350 MLS games for LA, scored 76 goals and won two MLS Cups and two Supporters' Shields.
Shalrie Joseph, MF (New England Revolution, Chivas USA, Seattle Sounders) - The archetypal defensive midfielder was the backbone of the Revs’ near-dynasty, played more than 300 MLS games and was a four-time Best XI honoree.
Robbie Keane, F (LA Galaxy) - Arguably the most productive Designated Player in league history. Scored 92 goals in 146 MLS games and led LA to three MLS Cups.
Jason Kreis, F (FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake) - The striker still ranks seventh in all-time regular season goals, and in 1999, he became the first American-born MLS MVP.
Chad Marshall, D (Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders) - The measuring stick for future MLS defenders. Marshall was a three-time Defender of the Year and winner of three MLS Cups and four Supporters' Shields.
Tony Meola, GK (New York Red Bulls, Sporting Kansas City) - The MLS original is the only goalkeeper to be named league MVP and played more than 270 games for NY and KC.
Jaime Moreno, F (D.C. United, New York Red Bulls) - The finest player in MLS’s first decade is one of only two to tally 100 goals and 100 assists. Moreno led DCU to 12 major titles, including the Concacaf and InterAmerican Cups.
Eddie Pope, D (D.C. United, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake) - The powerful yet graceful center back won three MLS Cups, a Defender of the Year Award, and was a four-time member of the MLS Best XI.
Preki Radosavljevic, MF (Sporting Kansas City, Miami Fusion) - Brilliant attacker won two MVP awards, two Golden Boots, is fifth all-time in assists and powered KC and Miami to four major trophies.
Steve Ralston, MF (Tampa Bay Mutiny, New England Revolution) - As consistent a threat from the flank as the league has seen, Ralston is second all-time in regular season assists with 135.
Nick Rimando, GK (Miami Fusion, D.C. United, Real Salt Lake) - The two-time MLS champion combined a flair for the spectacular with years of consistency and is the all-time leader in saves and shutouts.
Carlos Ruiz, F (LA Galaxy, FC Dallas, Toronto FC, Philadelphia Union, D.C. United) - El Pescadito was infuriating and effective, tallying 105 MLS goals. His 2002 season (32 goals, Cup, Shield) may be the finest in league history.
Taylor Twellman, F (New England Revolution) - Only injury could stop Twellman from scoring goals. He kept the Revs in contention by notching 111 in just 195 MLS matches.
Carlos Valderrama, MF (Tampa Bay Mutiny, Miami Fusion, Colorado Rapids) - Brought unparalleled panache to the league’s early days and still somehow ranks fourth all-time in assists despite playing just 175 regular season matches.
David Villa, F (New York City FC) - He spent just four seasons in MLS, but Villa was by far the best thing about the league’s most important expansion club. Scored an impressive 0.71 goals per regular season game and won 2016 MVP.
The Next Class
Active players on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory
MF Osvaldo Alonso, MF Kyle Beckerman, D Matt Besler, MF Michael Bradley, MF Diego Chará, GK Stefan Frei, F Sebastian Giovinco, D Omar Gonzalez, GK Bill Hamid, MF Federico Higuaín, F Kei Kamara, MF Nicolás Lodeiro, F Josef Martínez, MF Darlington Nagbe, D Ike Opara, MF Ignacio Piatti, GK Luis Robles, MF Diego Valeri, F Carlos Vela, F Chris Wondolowski, F Bradley Wright-Phillips, D/MF Graham Zusi.