Our City is a weekly column dedicated to the culture surrounding Orlando City, MLS, and the American soccer landscape.
The Major League Soccer newswire was lit up this week by the news that Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic was finalizing his long-rumored move to America, signing on with the LA Galaxy. The move of such a decorated and idolized player, of course, brings with it a host of opinions. How good can he be? Will his knee hold out? Will he make the Galaxy contenders again?
Ibrahimovic brings with him a famously massive self-confidence and brand that take these kinds of questions head-on. If his early interviews are to be believed, you can start etching his name and the Galaxy’s onto any host of the trophies and awards up for grabs in this still-early 2018 MLS season.
We’ve heard this before though, from accomplished and talented players looking to lift one more trophy in the United States as part of a multi-year retirement party. David Beckham famously paved the way for European superstars at the end of their careers to move stateside in an effort to keep their playing days and their brands going just a little longer.
Except, the league Beckham found success in is a bit of a different animal these days.
Since 2007, the league has gotten more competitive with the addition of new clubs, deeper pockets, better academies, and better scouting networks. Players equal to or better than Ibrahimovic and Beckham have struggled to find unbridled success in MLS.
Here in Orlando, we enjoyed watching Kaká play, all the while secretly knowing he wasn’t enough on his own. German superstar Bastian Schweinsteiger has struggled to turn the Chicago Fire’s fortunes around. Thierry Henry had a successful run with the New York Red Bulls, but never enough to deliver an MLS Cup. Current superstar European-in-residence in New York City, David Villa, has found success as one of the best players in the league, but alas he has brought no trophies to the upstart New York City FC. Even Beckham’s MLS Cups came on the backs of Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan.
The record of older European players, matched with that last fact — that it took a cast of talent to help David Beckham lift trophies in America — reminds us that the MLS game is a squad game. The successful team build right now seems to incorporate a scattering of American talent around a number of talented younger international players, often from South America. For the Galaxy to win behind Ibrahimovic and a cast that includes the often-underperforming Dos Santos brothers and a 37-year-old Ashley Cole would work contrary to nearly all of the significant trends in MLS in the last 10 years.
Supporters of the move may suggest the victory for MLS and the LA Galaxy will come at the box office and merchandise booths, with the signing of a genuine global phenomenon. Americans who haven’t followed MLS before will show up to see a player of Zlatan’s caliber strut his stuff on football pitches both grass and plastic across the country. To an extent that is, of course, true, but no truer than it has been for players like Kaká or Villa.
It seems to some that each new European superstar in the twilight of his career will be the next Pele, here to sell the world’s game to America. Yet, those same commenters haven’t noticed the game is significantly entrenched in the United States already. For all the imperfections of MLS, the challenges of the American soccer pyramid, and the disappointment in the United States Men’s National Team’s lack of qualifying success for this summer’s World Cup, soccer in America is as big a part of the American sports landscape as it’s ever been. And I’m just not sure what the arrival of Ibrahimovic will do to change that much.
What do you think? Are you excited about the Zlatan move? Will he make an impact where other notable players weren’t able to? Let me know by commenting below or reaching out on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory