This is a Primer on the best Arab player in the world right now. Certainly incomplete, but should give you a taste for the type of players that as of yet are undiscovered in Europe, and who would be a great way for Sounders FC to potentially market around the world and not just the Puget Sound.
With their current connections to France, Gambia and the tiny appeal that Keller might keep in England, Spain and Germany. This is an excellent start to having an internationally recognizable brand, and the club is clearly interested in bringing an Asian star or two or three.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber described Seattle as the "gateway to the East," with Roth adding, "We can bring in teams from China, Korea and Japan, and I hope that we'll be able to bring in the same caliber of player as [Japanese player] Ichiro [Suzuki] with the Seattle Mariners."
I fully expect at least one player from China, and another from a more developed East Asian country (Japan, South Korea). Especially in light of Roth's experience in marketing American products around the world.
There is a part of the Asian soccer world that so far MLS has ignored, and wrongly so. Southwest Asia, or the Arab states. In the last four years we have seen the following performances from Arab soccer on the world stage;
Iraq - 4th in 2004 Olympics, AFC Champions 2007
Saudi Arabia - 2nd in 2007 AFC
Bahrain - 4th in 2004 AFC
Qatar hosts the 2011 AFC and is bidding for the 2016 World Cup
In World Cup Qualifying Asia is in their penultimate round (2 groups of 5) and four teams will qualify from Asia with the 5th best team playing against the Ocieana winner. Qatar is first in their group, with wins in this tourney over Iraq and Australia already. Saudi Arabia also leads their group. Bahrain and the UAE will likely not move past this stage.
So what players can help to capture this market while also helping Sounders FC win? Already I have pointed out Iraqi Center Mid Nashat Akram who had been courted by Manchester City and a former Asian Footballer of the year.
Today's subject is Qatari National and al-Sadd team leader, Khalifan Ibrahim Khalifan winner of the AFC Footballer of the year award in 2006. Khalifan missed most of 2007 injured but has just recently rejoined his club team in time for the league season, in fact last night they faced off against Akram's club. He also has started playing for the Qatari National Team again playing partial minutes in their last two matches (3-0 win over Uzbekistan, 1-1 tie with Bahrain). Khalifan came on as a sub and scored Qatar's only goal against Australia.
al-Sadd, Khalifan's club, sits atop the table three games into the 08/09 season with a +8 Goal Differential and wins over last year's champions (2-1, Khalifan with a goal), this years mid table al-Wakrah (2-1, Khalifan with a goal) and this year's bottom dwellers (6-0, Khalifan with two).
al-Sadd is one of the Arab superclubs where fading Europeans go for a last pay check. Playing on al-Sadd are several Brazilians, as well as players from Ecuador and France. While certainly the play in Qatar isn't as good as MLS there is that similarity of fading players getting paid, while the young players are mainly from the local region and trying to move up, obviously MLS would be a move to a better league and a league where Khalifan and others would be more likely to move onwards to Europe. Because right now only a bare handful of Arab players have made the huge leap from the Gulf to Europe, a signing in MLS would be ideal for a player trying to demonstrate that they can succeed on a larger stage.
Khalifan is currently a Forward but looks capable of playing as a Winger, but has some of the issues that Freddy Adu faces in that he's smaller and is unsuited for a role as a Target Forward. His passing can be crisp, he has the pace needed in MLS to succeed in international competitions and times his runs quite well.
Qatar is almost certainly to qualify for 2010 South Africa and Khalifan will be their leader. Any success the team has will be due to his performance on that stage, and if a Euro club has not signed him by then they certainly will after. Having a top level Qatari player makes strong sense also in that the AFC Championship will be in Qatar in 2011 and playing in the Laptop stadium. Any player at that tournament that is on SSFC's roster will improve the visibility of the Rave Green Sounders for the entire continent.
If the desire is for a truly international team with an international following, with attacking soccer that wins both league and international tournaments the club could certainly do worse than Khalifan Ibrahim as a speedy addition who can slip past defenders and slam it into the net. He's also familiar with the empowerment of local supporters as al-Sadd has a Membership Association that has made changes to game day presentation and was the reason for adding a restaurant under the club's brand.
Video of three of his four goals after the link
First up you see him score in high traffic off of a well placed pass in the 18 yard box. Next up is a well timed run through the defense on a pass from about 40 yards away. Last of the three is a little triangle play off of the left wing that Khalifan puts away.
Video's originally came from Al Sadd