First there was David Beckham. And then came Thierry Henry. Then more: Robbie Keane, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe.
And the latest global brand name to join Major League Soccer: Spain's David Villa.
No one will ever mistake MLS for England's Premier League or La Liga in Spain, but soccer in North America is beginning to resemble the superclub structure of Europe, where a handful of teams with tremendous wealth can buy the best talent. The rest hack along as best they can.
The Beckham signing in 2007 was a demarcation point in MLS's history and made the Los Angeles Galaxy the league's first superclub. Toronto FC, after seven losing seasons, joined in last winter, signing Bradley and Defoe to huge contracts, and suddenly had the biggest payroll in the league. It's paying off: TFC, which won only six of 34 games in 2013, already has six wins in 11 games this season.
Seattle Sounders FC and the New York Red Bulls are also superclubs, and New York City FC makes five – and it's not even in business. The 2015 expansion team, the 20th squad in the league, is owned by Manchester City FC and the New York Yankees, and last week it signed Villa, the 32-year-old all-time leading scorer for Spain internationally, as its cornerstone.
To put the MLS haves and have-nots in perspective, the salary paid to any one of the league's three highest-paid players – Dempsey, Bradley and Defoe, who make more than $6-million each – is greater than the entire payrolls of the 15 non-superclubs in the league.
In this milieu, the Vancouver Whitecaps try to strike a balance. The team is among the top-spending non-superclubs, and since its debut in 2011 it has always put a small but not insignificant pile of money on one player, going for great skill if not a brand name. That hasn't really paid off until this year's signing of Chile's Pedro Morales from La Liga for $1.4-million, the most Vancouver has ever spent on a single player.
Now, the team has reached an intriguing moment. The Whitecaps, led by rookie head coach Carl Robinson, have a promising win-loss-tie record of 5-2-6 as the league takes a two-week break for the World Cup.
So it's decision time in Vancouver: The allure of a strong playoff run in the fall beckons, with the summer transfer window set to open in July. A premier defender looks like a smart investment, with captain Jay DeMerit hurt again, or maybe a veteran striker could be useful, to bolster the young crew of forwards.
The team is poised – but cautious. Two years ago, when the club had a strong first half, it added several expensive imports, but the moves backfired. The new players didn't perform to expectations, and the team stumbled badly late in the season.
The Whitecaps have compiled a list that is "the most comprehensive 'who's-available' since we've had the team," said co-owner Jeff Mallett in an interview last Thursday, sitting in the stands at BC Place. South America was one region specifically mentioned.
"But there's no gaping 'uh-oh.' We feel what [Robinson's] got here can continue to stay in the playoff hunt out West and on any given day beat any club. We're a decent side."
The club remains ambitious, and while Vancouver may not be ready to land a $6-million player and become a superclub, it does envision itself as a long-term power. It wants a foundation built through the draft and savvy scouting of reasonably priced players from abroad. And Mallett and lead owner Greg Kerfoot will listen to big ideas.
"If there is someone who is a true difference maker, Greg and I are flexible," said Mallett. "Carl goes into this knowing if he finds somebody, he has everyone listening, and we wouldn't let money stop that discussion."
Robinson, backed by Spanish-speaking assistant Martyn Pert, has quickly proven his talent-acquisition acumen with Morales and several other additions.
Money can buy success. The strategy worked in L.A. – the Galaxy was the league's champ in 2011 and 2012, and things look promising in the previous sinkhole of Toronto. But low payroll teams can succeed, too. Last year's MLS Cup finalists, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, didn't have a single player making more than $500,000.
It is about chemistry. The Whitecaps have it right now. The trick, if they add to the club, is to produce a positive reaction.
Mallett does not foresee the league's disparities going to the extremes of England and Europe, where only a few clubs have a real chance at winning. The big names in MLS have been good for the game here, but the game remains competitive, pointing to last year's Kansas City-Salt Lake final.
"It's lifted the whole league – but it's not our approach," said Mallett. "The league's model is not breaking. We're a long, long, long ways away from what's happening in Europe, where there are the true superclubs."