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Dec 31, 2007

Blanco heightens MLS profile in Mexico

Since Major League Soccer first took a bow, the league has seen its share of Mexican soccer stars give MLS teams a try, but often the stints were short-lived and of a disappointing nature.

In only half a season of game action with the Chicago Fire, though, Cuauhtemoc Blanco has achieved such a high level of success that his example is helping to draw new interest from other players over the border.

What Blanco accomplished was what David Beckham, hampered by injuries, was unable to do -- to demonstrate on the field both how far the league has come and how much farther it still has to go.

With Blanco on the field displaying the tricks and skills that made him a star, viewers could see how his talent brought a new dimension to the workmanlike style of MLS games.

While fans of Blanco might have watched some games with amusement, colleagues and former teammates had a more vested interest when checking out the matches.

The designated player rule drew worldwide attention from soccer players, especially when Beckham was signed under the statute for an impressive amount. However, Mexican stars such as Luis Hernandez and Jorge Campos had played in the league before for large amounts of money. The highest-paid player in MLS the year before Beckham's arrival was Francisco "Paco" Palencia of Chivas USA.

Yet Palencia chose to play this past season in Mexico. Blanco's decision to sign with the Fire, however, trumped that move by drawing more attention to MLS than the signing of any Mexican player before. Blanco's ability to draw fans to Fire games both home and away also proved his impact was no mere novelty.

The historical excuse often given by players from Mexico who underperformed was to blame their teammates for being unable to utilize their passing techniques, or having little sense of game tactics and the finer points of tricky maneuvers. Blanco certainly had other Fire players misread his passes, whiff on crosses that should have been goals, or waste other opportunities that he helped create. That didn't stop Blanco from pulling his team into contention.

Along the way, Blanco put to rest speculation from die-hard Fire fans about whether a Mexican national team player could perform with heart and soul for a U.S.-based squad.

Fans of Blanco who came out to see him play with the Fire swelled with pride upon seeing their hero in a new context, putting his stamp in a different league.

The new rules that MLS has enacted this year, especially allowing more foreign players, open the gates to more possibilities than ever before.

It is startling to think that the U.S., with a strong Hispanic population and many Spanish speakers, has not had more than a handful of true Mexican star soccer players in MLS.

Yet the biggest reason why is simple: money. Mexico has a successful soccer league and pays its stars well. Few players would leave that financial comfort for a move to the more penny-pinching MLS. The designated player rule, though, gives teams new leeway, as Blanco's multimillion-dollar signing proved.

There are other incentives that the growing league offers. MLS games have picked up substantial television contracts and are shown abroad. A growing number of young players in the league have made the transition from an MLS career to overseas clubs, lucrative contracts and competition against the biggest teams in the world.

Blanco is probably far too advanced in age to draw that kind of interest from European teams, but he still stands as an example of the positive benefits a move to MLS can produce.

Many star athletes have a love-hate relationship with fans. They like the adoration they receive for their skillful play, but many prefer to try to live normally away from the game. With so many other sports vying for attention in the American entertainment landscape, a star like Blanco can enjoy something of the best of both worlds. In the Fire's sparkling stadium in Bridgeview, Ill., crowds roar his name, but elsewhere in Chicago, Blanco can walk about unrecognized, which would be impossible in Mexico City.

At the same time, however, Blanco's profile as a player has grown. He has proved he can break into the top ranks of MLS, despite the league's physical play, travel schedule and variable conditions. Since MLS features more European players than the Mexican league does, it is sometimes viewed as a transitional step to adjusting to the style overseas. Blanco probably has not improved since his days in the Mexican league, but it would be fair to say that all sorts of new and different people now are aware of how good he really is.

The rivalry between the two countries may be impacted by the situation somewhat. The fact that the U.S. has had success over Mexico in national team games has led some to point out that perhaps the Americans are comfortable with their scrappy style partly because El Tri has trouble adjusting to it. Blanco may not be called into many more national team games for Mexico, but his increased familiarity with the U.S. game could be useful.

Blanco's triumphs in MLS also throw down the gauntlet for U.S. players -- are any Americans developed domestically ever going to do as well in the Mexican league?

Ultimately, Blanco's stint with the Fire may give a few players in Mexico bargaining leverage only as a threat to leave a team, but others will take a good long look at the possibilities presented by MLS. The financial rewards are growing and the league is gaining legitimacy and offers a different style of competition, all the while being a short plane ride from home (Blanco himself flies back to Mexico frequently). The result? Mexican players already have begun to contemplate MLS as a viable option.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.