Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced himself to the MLS last weekend in his own inimitable style, coming off the bench in the second half to make his debut for LA Galaxy, and scoring twice to secure a 4-3 win in the derby against LAFC. While plenty of onlookers might see the Swede’s move across the pond as one final flourish to massage his ego in a league of lesser quality, the signing of an aging superstar is actually a throwback to a bygone era in American soccer. The MLS is rapidly changing, and Zlatan is the exception that proves the rule.
“It’s gonna fall for IbraHIMOVIC! OH COME ON! COME ON!” It was a classic introduction from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After signing for LA Galaxy in the week leading up to the game, there were doubts about whether he would be ready for the Los Angeles derby. Arriving as a 71st minute substitute, and with his side trailing 3-1 at home, the imposing Swede took three minutes to make his mark on the match – beginning the move that lead to Chris Pontius pulling a second goal back for the home side. Six minutes after coming on, he put his name on the lips of the world. A long ball played upfield dropped for Ibrahimovic thirty-five yards out, and without breaking stride he arced a half-volley over LAFC ‘keeper Tyler Miller to complete Galaxy’s incredible comeback from 3-0 down. With the retweets rolling in on Twitter, Ibrahimovic completed his dream debut by scoring a stoppage time winner in the first ever LA derby. Not a bad way to announce yourself in a new country, and the ideal accompaniment to his official announcement, a full page advert in the LA Times that simply read ‘Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome’. With the Swede struggling for game time at Old Trafford this season it comes as no great surprise that he’s moved on to pastures new, but for every doubter questioning why Zlatan would choose to move to America when, even at 36, there’s clearly still life in him yet, there’s another rolling their eyes at the MLS and their reputation as one of footballs ‘retirement homes’. But Ibrahimovic’s debut may go some way to showing that Zlatan and the MLS are a match made in heaven, even if the trend of aging superstars is a thing of the past.
Major League Soccer was established in 1996 off the back of the wave of enthusiasm brought about by USA hosting the 1994 World Cup. There had been fears heading into that tournament that the lack of interest in soccer from the American public would lead to poorly attended games, a lack of atmosphere and a disappointing tournament, but across those two months the USA broke every attendance record going. The glitz, glamour and palpable excitement surrounding the World Cup in ’94 brought soccer to a whole new audience, and though the final between Brazil and Italy turned out to be a damp squib, the 94,000 people that crammed into the Pasadena Rose Bowl on a scorching July afternoon were testament to the thirst for a sport that had struggled to make an impact. The first six years of the MLS were far from smooth sailing – the ten founding teams all played in large American Football stadiums, and struggled with attendances, and between 1996 and 2001 the league lost around $250m. Fortunately the performance of the United States national team at the 2002 World Cup reinvigorated America’s interest in soccer, and as the profile of America’s players increased and the league expanded, so too did the interest in the American public. The real game-changer arrived in 2007, with the introduction of the Designated Player Rule, which allowed clubs to attract big international stars to the league. While World Cup finalists such as Lothar Matthaus and Roberto Donadoni had spent time at the end of their careers with MLS clubs in the mid-90s, the Designated Player Rule provided clubs the free-reign to use financial clout in order to attract players that were still at their peak, and LA Galaxy took full advantage by securing the signature of David Beckham and offering the England captain $50m a year for five years.
Its fair to say that Beckham endured mixed fortunes in Los Angeles, appearing 98 times for the Galaxy across five seasons, but regularly falling out with supporters who accused him of lacking loyalty to the club, such was his desperation to return to Europe on loan with Milan. Regardless, the riches and slower pace of the game on offer in America appealed to plenty of top players in Europe steadily passing their peak. Thierry Henry joined the league from Barcelona in 2010, earning a reported $3.75m per season from New York Red Bulls, and in 2014 the emergence of New York City FC, a new MLS franchise, saw a swathe of Designated Players flock to the league, David Villa – one of the few truly successful Designated Players, Villa scored 66 goals in 100 games for NYC and won the MLS Most Valuable Player award in 2016 – Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo all donned the sky blue of New York City, while Steven Gerrard spent one season at LA Galaxy before retiring, and Kaka represented Orlando City. Given the mixed fortunes that these expensive recruits have experienced, its no surprise that MLS’ Designated Players are slowly becoming less marquee signings – besides merchandise revenue, they’re generally more trouble than they’re worth. There are now ten American nationals as designated players in the MLS, more than ever before, and the higher profile names that take up current designated player spots were signed in the prime of their careers – Mexican duo Carlos Vela and Giovanni Dos Santos are a prime example, while the likes of Sebastian Giovinco and Bradley Wright-Phillips have reinvented themselves since moving to America. It’s also worth noting, in further opposition to the MLS stereotype, that as Designated Players are becoming less of a financial burden, they, along with MLS squads in general, are becoming younger.
In 2014, the average starting line-up age across MLS was 27.9, with San Jose Earthquakes’ aging squad averaging a starting XI age of 31.7. Since then, that average has slowly started to drop, and so far this season the average age of MLS starting line-ups is 27.1, with New York Red Bulls’ squad the youngest in the league at 24.9. Whether the Earthquakes performance in 2014 (bottom of their conference and dead last across both leagues) has anything to do with the trust placed in younger players is difficult to clarify, but its also worth noting that San Jose’s squad that season didn’t feature an aging European superstar. Finishing one place and two points above San Jose Earthquakes were Colorado Rapids who, in 2014, had the youngest squad in MLS. So the hunt for any kind of correlation may be a long one. Last season, LA Galaxy finished bottom of the league with the youngest side, while Montreal Impact slipped from 11th in 2016 to 17th, now boasting the oldest squad. Again, Impact were hardly awash with star names from yesteryear, with Switzerland midfielder Blerim Džemaili perhaps the most recognisable from the squad, and homegrown players made up the bulk of their roster.
Part of the emergence of young, talented homegrown players is down to Generation Adidas. The initiative, set up by the MLS and U.S Soccer in 1997, is aimed at developing game-ready players for top level US club sides to add to their roster, with the traditional youth academy set-up seen across Europe yet to take hold in the States. Since 1997 the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan and Jozy Altidore have emerged from the scheme to ply their trade in the US and across Europe, and since 2014, 24 graduates of Generation Adidas have gone on to represent teams in the MLS, while Cyle Larin and Jack Harrison have been snapped up by Besiktas and Middlesbrough respectively. With the scheme producing a handful of talented players averaging around 20 years old each year, the conveyer belt for promising youngsters – something that can only strengthen the league – is alive and well in America.
Perhaps the biggest shift, particularly ahead of the 2018 season, has been the emergence of the MLS as a viable stepping stone for young South American players to develop themselves before taking the leap into one of Europe’s big leagues. In years gone by, many young Argentinian and Brazilian players have secured big-money moves to Europe and found it difficult to adapt to new surroundings and different leagues. The MLS now offers the ideal middle ground for these promising talents. Able to offer higher wages than the South American leagues, but also giving players an arena to nuture their own talent, play in different atmospheres, and even learn another language, the MLS has surpringsly been able to attract some of the most exciting young players from their continental neighbours. Atlanta United, now into only their second season as an MLS franchise, are spearheading this revolution, and ahead of this season secured the signatures of Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba, Franco Escobar and Jose Hernandez. Their biggest signing, however, was that of Ezequiel Barco. The diminutive Argentinian playmaker (sound familiar?) was signed from Independiente for $15m ahead of this season, and more than a few pundits were surprised given the interest shown in him from Europe. At just 19 years of age, however, it’s a move that makes total sense. Barco has been registered as a Designated Player for Atlanta, and undoubtedly he’ll see plenty of game time this season. With a chance to develop away from the limelight of the UEFA Champions League and its ilk, there’s every chance Barco will arrive in Europe in 2/3 years time a far more complete package, and able to handle the pressure that playing alongside the world’s elite brings.
That injection of excitement and promise is the perfect shot in the arm for a league that could be forgiven for expecting a drop off in interest this season. Average attendances in the MLS have tended to spike around World Cup years, with a 14.6% increase in 2002/03, a 10.8% increase in 2006/07, an 11.2% increase in 2010/11 and a 15.6% increase in 2014/15. With the United States surprisingly failing to qualify for Russia 2018, the received wisdom was that attendances in the national league would suffer as a result. Though its early days, those fears are currently unfounded, with the average attendance from the opening weeks of the season standing at 22,147 a small increase on last season’s 22,113, and a far cry from the dark days of 2000, when fewer than 7,500 were turning out to watch Miami Fusion. Undoubtedly, part of the rise in average attendances is down to the establishing of new franchises. Atlanta United, seemingly on a one-team mission to reinvigorate the league, posted the highest average attendance in their maiden MLS season, with 48,200 doubling most of their competitors averages. All-time high attendances were also posted by Portland Timbers, and Toronto FC in 2017, while Minnesota United managed to draw in an admirable average of 20,538 in their debut season. With LAFC joining the Western Conference this season, and David Beckham’s Miami franchise due to join in 2020, the attendances are only likely to increase, with more and more high profile sides available to support.
And what of Zlatan? If aging European superstars are now persona non grata in the MLS, what is a 36 year old with an ego the size of California doing rocking up at LA Galaxy? It’s certainly not for the money – if reports are to be believed, Ibrahimovic is earning $30,000 a week in LA, a fraction of his wages at Manchester United. In all likelihood Zlatan has gone to America for the challenge after he, in his own words, ‘conquered England’ (Jose Mourinho really did talk up that Charity Shield, huh). If his debut is anything to go by, Ibrahimovic isn’t going to follow in the footsteps of Andrea Pirlo or Steven Gerrard, putting in lacklustre, half-hearted performances because his body is no longer up to the challenge. He’s gone to America to succeed, just like he has everywhere else in his career, and perhaps even further his personal brand. None of those superstars that have previously made the move to America have possessed the charisma of Ibrahimovic, and Zlatan could become the very first cult hero (or villain) of the MLS. Whether he’s able to fire a fairly mediocre LA Galaxy side to MLS glory remains to be seen, but he’ll most definitely bring flair, arrogance, and entertainment in spades. America, you’re welcome.