All it took was one picture of Zinedine Zidane sitting courtside at a New York Knicks game to get the mouths of American soccer fans watering.
It didn't matter that soccer stars from Thierry Henry to Wayne Rooney have been spotted at Madison Square Garden in recent months, seeing the retired French star on this side of the pond was enough to rev up the rumor mill and leave us wondering if there might actually be a second superstar coming to MLS via the new Designated Player rule, otherwise known as the David Beckham Exception.
With less than a week to go before MLS teams must set their rosters for the upcoming season, it appears as if the Zidane rumors were nothing but hopeful speculation. The Frenchman is off in Asia making appearances while MLS fans wonder where Beckham's reinforcements are.
Forget every other name linked with the league since MLS cleared the way for teams to spend big bucks on stars. The only one that mattered, the one that could have added the necessary second boost to MLS to go along with Beckham's arrival, was Zidane. Unfortunately, he isn't coming.
Call it the most disappointing moment of the MLS offseason. Why, you ask? Because there isn't another player who was reasonably in the league's range that could have made the impact Zidane could have made. No, we aren't just talking about the buzz that would come with Zidane returning to action for the first time since that infamous head butt of Marco Materazzi. Zidane, even at 34, would have been the type of star to not only wow the soccer die-hards, but also pique the interest of the casual soccer fans.
He is just that good. His control on the ball, vision, ability to score and just plain beautiful play is something MLS has very little of, and the appeal of seeing these gifts in person would have certainly made Zidane a draw, both at home and on the road.
Think he's too old? Then you must have forgotten the magic he worked in the World Cup prior to his meltdown in the final. Just seven months ago, Zidane served as the inspirational centerpiece of a French team that defeated a dangerous Spain squad and the defending champion Brazilians before falling to Italy in penalty kicks. This performance by the French was due to the work of several standouts, including Franck Ribery and Lillian Thuram, but Zidane was the unquestioned inspiring force. Only the head butt prevented Zidane from being the tournament's hero. Instead, he walked off into retirement as a villain in the eyes of some.
This is why it made complete sense for Zidane to return to the professional playing field in the United States. What better place to do some image rebuilding than the media capital of the world? A year or two of mesmerizing ball skills and brilliant soccer would have helped to erase some of the tarnish left behind by that ugly moment of rage in Germany.
So what went wrong exactly? Why isn't Zidane joining his former Real Madrid teammate in America? No one knows for sure but some MLS sources suggest that Zidane wanted too much money, with the Washington Post citing a source that stated Zidane wouldn't listen to offers of anything less than $15 million a year. If that really was the case then you can't completely blame the Fire or the Red Bulls for saying thanks, but no thanks.
If those numbers are to be believed, then you have to wonder how such a demand could be concocted. The simple answer rests in Los Angeles, where the Galaxy gladly promoted the fictional figure of $250 million over five seasons for Beckham. That figure grabbed its share of headlines, but it also put a bull's-eye square on MLS, with every agent and star player hoping for an end-of-career payday lining up to find out if MLS was really paying the astronomical figures being linked to Beckham's move.
You couldn't really blame Zidane in that case, could you? Would you listen to anything less than $15 million if a player you knew you were clearly better than was making $25 million a season, particularly when you walked away from a Real Madrid contract that would have paid you close to $10 million this season? Somehow, I doubt it.
Should the Fire or Red Bulls have broken the bank for Zidane? It would have been difficult to envision AEG shelling out that kind of money for Zidane after already spending big money on Beckham. The Red Bulls made more sense, particularly with the parent company's deep pockets, but the energy drink makers didn't get rich by making rash decisions or poor investments. They could have looked at Zidane, who speaks little to no English, and determined that his value as a marketing tool wasn't worth an eight-figure contract.
The thing about Zidane is that he doesn't have to speak English to affect people and attract new fans to the game and to MLS. Much like Brazilian star Ronaldinho, Zidane transforms the game into an art form that you don't have to be a soccer expert to appreciate, an element the league is in painfully short supply of. He is also the type of impact player that could help transform the Red Bulls into a title contender.
In the end, it doesn't matter if the Red Bulls or Fire were ready to shell out major money to land Zidane if he was set on staying retired. He is already rich and has four young sons, so it isn't out of the realm of possibility that he is really ready to walk away from the game permanently.
The only thing sadder than that would be if something could have actually been done to bring Zidane to MLS but wasn't. If this is the case, then the teams in question should prepare to correct this mistake this summer. MLS doesn't need Zidane to survive, but having him join Beckham in the United States this summer would only help the 11-year-old league thrive.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.