WASHINGTON – Those who like to haughtily dismiss the impact and influence that high-profile imports can have on Major League Soccer are not short of ammunition when it comes to Cuauhtemoc Blanco.
He is past his prime. His move to the Chicago Fire probably was the last big payday of his career. He is a few months away from his 35th birthday.
However, those cynics disregard one crucial factor: The magical thing about stardust is that it rubs off.
Blanco's body might be weaker but his mind is still as sharp as ever, evidenced in Thursday's 2-2 draw that eliminated top-seeded D.C. United from the MLS Cup playoffs. And it is with those subtle thought processes that the man known as the Hunchback can make his greatest impact on the league.
The skeptics will always claim that the reasons behind the signing of Blanco – and David Beckham by the Los Angeles Galaxy – are primarily motivated by marketing and monetary factors. But if these players can lead by example and add some world-class sophistication to the North American game, then who cares?
Some people toss around terms like "retirement home" and "graveyard" to describe MLS, suggesting the league is primarily a resting place for washed-up talent. However, talent like Blanco does not get "washed up."
With a flick off his head, Blanco set up Chris Rolfe's second goal that was eventually enough to withstand a courageous comeback by D.C. United, and he showed the kind of instinctive ability that will never leave him.
For Chicago, the playoffs effectively started with the final game of the regular season, when the Fire defeated a Galaxy team that needed a victory to clinch a place in the postseason. From that moment on, Blanco has shifted his game into a different gear. His experience of pressure situations and ability to carve out something extra when it matters were crucial in driving the Fire past United and a step closer to the title.
"I spoke to my teammates before the game and told them to stay calm," Blanco said. "I have been in situations like this before and I like it. I love the challenge of it."
When Chicago added two first-half goals to their 1-0 advantage from last week's first leg, this conference semifinal looked to be over. But United's inspired second-half revival provided tremendous entertainment before the Supporters Shield winners saw their season come to a close.
In the end, D.C. United had the form, the team and arguably the best players in the league, but it lacked the extra spark when needed. Maybe, just maybe, it is a sign of things to come.
Star signings might not equate to regular-season domination, but a flash of genius might be just what is needed when it comes to the crapshoot that is the MLS Cup playoffs. With the system the way it is, spontaneous brilliance is rewarded more than consistency.
"The test of a true good team is over the course of a season, and anywhere else in the world we would be champions," United coach Tom Soehn said. "But in MLS Cup you need your team to be hot and healthy. We weren't and we have to deal with it."
With more big-name players set to join the league in the coming seasons, hopefully the playoffs will become a showpiece of attacking talent. The expected influx of accomplished forwards and creative midfielders is unlikely to be matched by the arrival of top-class defenders.
If that creates an imbalance, so be it. That imbalance will result in higher-scoring matches, greater creative flair and more entertainment.
Maybe that will silence the cynics once and for all.