TORONTO – If there was a precise mathematical formula for Major League Soccer's future success, then the U.S. dollar's exchange rate would figure in there somewhere.
For MLS to achieve its goal of genuine strength in depth, it must attract not just superstars like David Beckham, but also solid professionals from the European leagues. Problem is, the current weakness of the American dollar means that, on paper, the salaries in MLS are unlikely to match the huge sums of money being thrown about in England, Spain and Italy.
However, MLS has one major selling point over clubs in Europe: Pounds and euros accumulated by would-be imports go a lot further here than in their homelands.
Just ask Carl Robinson.
The Wales international is the highest earner at expansion club Toronto FC, but his salary of $315,000 is still well short of what he made before cancelling his contract at Norwich City, a club in England's Championship league. Still, Robinson, a solid and organized midfielder who has become the heartbeat of the Canadian side, has not regretted his switch to Toronto for a moment.
With property prices in the U.K. astronomical, the standard of living enjoyed by the former Sunderland, Norwich and Wolverhampton Wanderers player and his young family has actually increased, with the 30-year-old having bought a beautiful country property just outside Toronto.
He now plans to spend the remainder of his career in MLS.
"I think you will start to see more players from England and other places in Europe decide to move out here to play," Robinson said. "I took a big decision to cancel my contract at Norwich and it was a big risk because it is a lot less money than I was guaranteed in England. But it is the best decision I have ever made."
Obviously, the arrival of players like Robinson and his teammate Danny Dichio – a London schoolboy rival of Beckham who went on to spend more than a decade in the English leagues – received far less attention than that of the Los Angeles Galaxy's marquee star. But even though Beckham, ankle injury or not, has been a one-man attendance-boosting, shirt-selling, ratings-spiking machine, he alone cannot generate a significant improvement in the overall quality of MLS.
Instead, it is the likes of Robinson and Dichio who, if followed by more like them in Europe, can ensure the product is built on a solid platform of soccer ability.
"The misconception is that people are coming out here to wind down their careers. That's wrong," Robinson said. "If anyone came here with that attitude, they wouldn't last five minutes. You need to be committed to be successful in (North) America."
The payoff for the players coming over to MLS has many elements. British players, in particular, are attracted by a cheaper cost of living, affordable properties and a better climate.
MLS commissioner Don Garber is fully aware of the positive impact that experienced imports can make, but he is wary of adopting a gung-ho approach and recruiting overseas stars too aggressively. His message is clear: "Let them come to us."
"When it comes to these players, I prefer to say 'want,' rather than 'need,' " Garber said. "It has to be the right fit. If a certain player comes along, and they would fit into the right market, then why not?"
One issue that could arise is that of location. Clearly, Los Angeles and New York are going to be more attractive destinations for foreigners than Columbus or Kansas City.
"Everyone seems to want to come to the Galaxy and live in L.A.," Beckham said, "so we have to get used to being a big team in this league."
- Major League Soccer