MLS stigma still exists in some quarters
It was about as promising a sign that Major League Soccer had made steady progress toward respectability as one could hope to find. A young player noted for his potential, who was just at the point of gaining regular notice for his national team, wished to join the league. In fact, he was convinced MLS could be his launching pad to a European career.
Such was the vision that Mexico's Juan Pablo Garcia had in 2005 when he joined Chivas USA in midseason.
Garcia's hope wasn't as farfetched as it might seem to many. MLS had indeed developed a number of players who had gone abroad, including DaMarcus Beasley, Carlos Bocanegra, Damani Ralph and Tim Howard. More recently, Clint Dempsey landed at Fulham. All these players developed in the league.
However, Garcia was not one of the outgoing MLS contingent, at least not to Europe. Interest from Dutch team Feyenoord never materialized into a concrete offer, and instead Garcia has returned to Mexico to play with Tigres.
In some ways, Garcia believed he had no choice, since he was hoping to feature for the Mexican national team and believed that playing in MLS made it more difficult. Not because of the style or quality of play, which Garcia thought would help prepare him for Europe, but because of the perception of MLS in Mexico.
"MLS is very disparaged there," Garcia said. "It's easy for people to look and say that it looks easy to play here, but it's not like that at all."
Garcia is hoping his new role with Tigres will aid his cause: "By playing in Mexico, I'll have a better chance to get called in for the national team."
Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Pete Vagenas noted that Garcia's admission was something of an open yet unspoken secret in the soccer world.
"He's sort of opened Pandora's box by saying something like that," said Vagenas, though he admitted that he agreed partly with Garcia.
"He's got a good point," Vagenas said. "At the same time, it would have been beneficial if he had stayed and fought his way. He's not all of a sudden a better player. He was a great player with Chivas, and he'll be a great player now."
Garcia's former coach, Bob Bradley, understood Garcia's need to prioritize and perhaps sacrifice for his dream: "It's important for him to find his way back to the national team, so I wish him the best."
In fact, another player's wish to feature again with his national team was cited by many as the main reason he would never join MLS, as it was thought that such a move would effectively end that hope. Yet David Beckham defied expectations when he agreed to join the Galaxy.
"He's going to bring some credibility," Vagenas said. "It's going to mean a lot. It's our responsibility as players who are here to show that we're maybe a little better than people give us credit for. I think it will go a long way if [Beckham] comes here and makes a statement like, 'These guys can play.' I think that will do leaps and bounds for MLS and this sport."
That was already an optimistic viewpoint, but Vagenas also dreamed of more.
"Hopefully, it works out for all of us and [Beckham] ends up back on the England national team," Vagenas said.
When it was pointed out that many considered Beckham's move to MLS as a sign of his giving up all hope of a return to the national team, Vagenas nodded.
"I've heard that too," Vagenas said. "I don't know. He is who he is, and who am I to say, but if I was in his position, I'd be pissed if I heard something like that. You don't go from being captain of your national team to all of a sudden not being able to play."
The problem remains that perception is a subjective prism, and the long-held opinion of many soccer observers around the world is that the quality of MLS is so low that it could not successfully prepare a player to perform at the international level of a top European squad like England.
Yet Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas believes that even if observers were already biased, a long look at MLS play in its current incarnation could shake up the established opinions of some. That was one of many reasons that he welcomed Beckham's arrival to the Galaxy.
"There's going to be a spotlight the likes of which we've never seen, on our organization and in particular that 90 minutes on the field," said Lalas. "Although at the center of it will be David Beckham, the light will shine all over the field. When this team does well, and goals are scored and players do magnificent things, it's going to be shown all over the world. That's a neat kind of situation to be in."
Lalas saw the increased attention as an opportunity for players in the league to quiet the naysayers.
"Use it to your advantage," Lalas said. "Prove to all the folks around the world who are saying that we don't have the quality to stand up next to David Beckham or we don't have the competitiveness that exists around the world, prove to them all. So when they see our games, and when they see our players, that they gain respect."
A skeptical soccer public may have already written Beckham off, however.
Even good performances by MLS teams in international tournaments, such as the recently announced SuperLiga versus Mexican squads, could leave the low opinion of the league as strong as ever, even in Mexico. That's partly because the tournament, like MLS itself, is too young and untested for others to believe in its competitive value.
Still, Vagenas remained idealistic.
"We can help [Beckham] get back to his national team," he said, "because I don't think it's anything that he's completely slammed the door shut on. I think it's disrespectful to this league and to all the players here to say that just because someone is coming here, that's the end of him for top-flight football. I don't think that's the case."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com, soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.