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Finding foothold in MLS

Frenchman Didier Domi will suit up for the Revolution. Frenchman Didier Domi will suit up for the Revolution. (File/Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / March 8, 2011

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French basketball players have moved in numbers across the Atlantic, becoming influential figures in the NBA over the last decade. Soccer players have been slower to arrive. Before Youri Djorkaeff’s move to New York in 2005, Major League Soccer had no France-born performers. Now, the league has seven Frenchmen, and that number is set to increase.

The French influences on MLS and the NBA are not unrelated, according to Michael Wiesenfeld, a New York-based agent with European Football Group. In fact, Wiesenfeld traces the importation of athletes to the United States to the exportation of its pop culture.

“The French market is No. 1 in Europe for hip-hop and R&B,’’ Wiesenfeld said. “And the US is a very attractive country for a lot of people in France, and particularly these players. I don’t think a lot of them are coming for the money, they are mainly coming for the experience. This generation of players is interested in modern American culture. And, for them to be able to do what they like to do, which is playing soccer, and to be in a country like the US — I’m pretty sure growing up they were looking toward this country with admiration, not for its politics, or whatever, but for the movies, the music scene.’’

The newfound interest is reflected in a French website dedicated to MLS.

“Young French people are very interested in all American sports [especially the NBA],’’ said Loic Moreau, who started MLS-news.fr last year, in an e-mail response. “Our aim is to interest them in MLS, to remind them there is a good championship in the US. With more French players and a higher level, no doubt MLS will interest more and more people right here.’’

Moreau’s website has 750 unique views daily. A recent story on San Jose’s Andre Luiz, a Brazilian midfielder who played for several clubs in France, had 4,000 views, according to Moreau.

Ousmane Dabo, 34, and Didier Domi, 32, this year became the first Frenchmen to join the Revolution. They are part of an exceptional generation of French soccer players, considered potentially as strong as the French teams that won the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship. Though French national teams have not reached those heights since, the players have made significant impacts.

Djorkaeff, a midfielder on the ’98 and 2000 teams, opened the door to MLS for French players.

“He laid the ground for this younger generation of players, especially by coming to New York,’’ Wiesenfeld said. “Players dream about New York, especially this generation of players.’’

Though Djorkaeff stood out with the MetroStars, his arrival was not highly publicized and he was clearly playing out his career. Thierry Henry’s arrival last year with the New York Red Bulls received worldwide publicity.

Henry, 33, has lost some of the edge that made him a megastar with Arsenal and Barcelona, but he is still able to capture imaginations and played a role in New York’s best season ever. Henry not only gained the attention of US fans, he upped the awareness of MLS for his peers.

“I haven’t spoken with Thierry in a long time,’’ Domi said recently. “But I wanted to go to MLS to be part of it, because we heard a lot of things through Djorkaeff and Thierry. You just see a lot of excitement around MLS in France, so I said why not go over to the United States? And I was lucky to go to Boston.’’

Domi, who completed a 5.58 million euro transfer from Paris Saint-Germain to Newcastle United in 1998, was out of contract after performing for Olympiakos in Greece in the 2009-10 season. Dabo, who attracted a 9 million euro transfer fee when he moved from Rennes to Inter in 1998, performed in 136 Serie A games before his contract was not renewed after 12 games with SS Lazio last year.

“I could not find a club in France, so I came here,’’ Dabo said before the traveling to Georgia for preseason training camp. “It’s a new experience and the MLS is becoming an important league.’’

Revolution coach Steve Nicol scouted both Dabo and Domi.

“They are good players, clearly,’’ Nicol said. “And the good thing is we’re getting them before their time is up. With them, we get quality and they are professional, as well.’’

Previously, Nicol had recruited players from several European countries, plus Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. This was Nicol’s first foray into France.

“If you look at our league the last two, three years with the DP [designated player] and teams making money available, the league is coming into their wage bracket,’’ Nicol said. “The combination of them wanting to come to us and also us being able to pay them somewhat like what they want.

“Everybody knows about the MLS. [David] Beckham had a huge influence on the world knowing about MLS.’’

But negotiations are often marked by misconceptions. Unlike European leagues, MLS mandates maximum salaries for players and imposes salary caps on teams.

“The only problem with players is they see Thierry Henry is getting $5 million-$6 million and they want the same,’’ Wiesenfeld said. “Players such as Dabo are probably getting $160,000-$180,000, but he’s played at a high level and he’s smart, and he’s not looking for the money, but for another challenging experience.

“There are a bunch of players who want to come to the MLS. But, to be honest, it is not the MLS itself that makes them want to come here. If the MLS were in another country, no one would be interested.’’

On Sunday, Eric Hassli, a relatively unknown 29-year-old striker, became the second Frenchman — along with Henry — to be named a designated player by the MLS. The Vancouver Whitecaps announced Hassli, who performed for FC Zurich last year, will be paid above the $400,000 league maximum salary.

“A lot of these players could be playing in the second division or in the first division in another country,’’ Wiesenfeld said. “But it’s smart for them to come to MLS.

“They are really following in the footsteps of the NBA players. Most of these guys are big fans of the NBA and they are following the league, it is part of what they consider American culture. And they can join in by coming to MLS.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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