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'Beckham Rule' generating star power

Don Garber must have allowed himself a contented smile when the Major League Soccer All-Star squad was unveiled.

The MLS commissioner has in no small part staked his reputation on the concept of the designated player, which makes it easier for big-name foreign talent to come into the league by allowing only $400,000 of the player's salary to count toward the team's cap.

However, the so-called "Beckham Rule" has extended far beyond a certain England midfielder and has helped to add quality and professionalism to the MLS. And with few exceptions, the star imports have performed extremely well, much to the relief of Garber and his colleagues at MLS headquarters.

David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the league's two biggest designated players and main attractions, were automatically voted in by fans, media and players, while Juan Pablo Angel of the New York Red Bulls was selected by All-Stars head coach Steve Nicol. Thankfully, there was no need for Garber to step in with one of his two commissioner's picks to rescue a designated player from the ignominy of exclusion.

The makeup of this year's First XI squad means the MLS side will have more star talent than its opponent, West Ham United of the English Premier League. The Hammers boast highly paid players in Craig Bellamy, Dean Ashton and Lucas Neill, but none of them are genuine international superstars with the gravitas of Beckham or Blanco.

This fact is further and pleasing proof that, apart from a couple of embarrassing missteps (Denilson and Claudio Reyna anyone?), the designated players are doing their job and have been successful, visible and popular.

Since joining the Los Angeles Galaxy a year ago, Beckham brought mass publicity and has helped take the game into the mainstream media with appearances on "The Tonight Show," "Ellen" and other popular shows.

All of that hype and hoopla counts for little, though, if it is not backed up on the field. With five goals and seven assists while ushering the Galaxy towards the top of the Western Conference, the 33-year-old has shown he is still a valuable contributor and has been recalled to the England national team setup.

Games broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2 have ratings 150 percent higher than those when he is not playing, and attendance at Galaxy road games top 27,000 on average.

Blanco has also been a revelation. His advancing years and weakening legs have not prevented him from adding spice, color and genuine quality to the Chicago Fire. He is loved and hated in equal measure, but even his biggest detractors cannot dispute that he is one of the biggest entertainers in the game.

His impact has been strong, helping boost the Fire's home attendance by more than 6,000 fans. Blanco's games are the highest-rated on Spanish cable TV network TeleFutura, and since his arrival last year, select MLS games are now broadcast on Mexico's Channel 3. The latter is a great step into the previously skeptical Mexican market.

Angel's efforts in the Big Apple have been outstanding on the playing front. His 19 goals last season saw him short-listed for the league MVP award. With the Red Bulls' big breakthrough into the psyche of the New York sporting public still to come, it is hoped the imminent move to a soccer-specific stadium in New Jersey will increase interest.

The Colombian insists the desire among the All-Stars is strong to prove a point about the league and about their own commitment.

"When you play with top players, none of us want to lose," Angel told reporters in the run-up to Thursday's All-Star game in Toronto. "We want to show on the field that we can compete with anyone in the world."

The efforts of all three men fly directly into the face of the lazy and oft-used criticism that MLS is setting itself up as a retirement home for those no longer suited to the cut and thrust of the big leagues.

Try telling that to the players who have to face Beckham or Blanco or Angel on a weekly basis.