Sunday brings the kind of matchup Major League Soccer had in mind when it created the designated player rule: the Los Angeles Galaxy featuring Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos against the Seattle Sounders with Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins and newly signed Nelson Valdez.
Naturally, ESPN wants to be there.
The problem is that while all that Galaxy star power is expected to be on the pitch Sunday at StubHub center, it is merely on the roster for the Sounders.
Valdez – whose signing was announced Friday – is not expected to don his new uniform until next weekend. Martins has missed six straight league matches with a leg injury, and coach Sigi Schmid gave little indication that run won’t stretch to seven. Dempsey – who returned to the lineup at the start of the month after being away with the U.S. national team and MLS All-Star duty – seemed the surest bet until leaving Friday training early in what Schmid called a precautionary move.
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Still, it is exciting to think what kind of boom might come from these teams colliding in the playoffs. (Yes, yes: assuming, etc.) And what a Western Conference final it could make to show how much progress MLS has made over its 20 season.
Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson played 11 seasons in the league and now is in his seventh in the Seattle front office. Here is some of what he had to say about this these two rosters as an indicator of the growth of the league:
“I think it’s the new money coming into the league,” he said. “I think it’s the reputation of Major League Soccer around the world now. You’re getting good players who are coming in good times in their career. It’s a country that many players come to on vacation: They feel comfortable, their families want to come, they’ll get paid, it’s safe. There are a lot of reasons that people want to come. But I think also part of our job is selling a player on Seattle, and what we have here and the growth of such a young club and where we’re at.”
On the difference between this MLS and the kind of spending the sank the original NASL: “I grew up watching the Sounders here in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s just a different time for soccer here in America than it was back then.”
On how a league pioneer sees the starpower of this match: “To see where the league has come since ’96 with regard to facilities and players. TO see the amount of stars that are on these rosters – and throughout the league, really – is exciting for me to see. I feel like I was part of building something really exciting, and to still be part of it in some ways makes me really happy.”
On MLS’ changing reputation worldwise: “It’s pretty rare when you come across a player who hasn’t seen a game and knows what’s going on here. In the early years players said, ‘Yeah, I might come there later in my career.’ They really didn’t know anything about it. But the knowledge of the league among players and agents and everything that comes with that is also coming to our country.”