Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović recently gave an interview with ESPN where he likened the difference in talent between himself and the rest of MLS as “a Ferrari among Fiats.”
He went on to say, “The game here [in America] could be so much faster, so much more tactical, so much more rhythmic.” He’s not wrong. Now it its 24th season, MLS still finds itself in a place where players in their late thirties are coming over from European clubs where they can’t keep up, and are still a class above most players in the league.
The question then is thus: How does MLS fix this problem?
For me, I think it begins with moving in a direction that will come as unpopular to some people. Whether by a formal rule, or just a general understanding among clubs, MLS needs to stop signing players at the end of their careers to large money contracts. Though these big names, such as Beckham, Henry, Pirlo, Zlatan, and Rooney, bring a level of excitement and wider attention to MLS, I’m left to wonder how much this is holding back progress.
Two decades is a long time to play soccer, even if it’s only 1/5 the time that the major European leagues have been in existence. The drawing power of a big name may have been necessary once for the vitality of MLS, but at some point you have to move beyond that and rely on your own talent to show the world how much you’ve grown. To add on to Zlatan’s car analogy, we’re starting to build our own Ferraris here in America, but we’re still exporting them to Europe to play.
Zack Steffen and Weston McKennie play in Germany. Christian Pulisic and Matt Miazga are developing in England. Tyler Boyd just transferred to Beşiktaş. Though the rest of the most recent USMNT roster plays in MLS, several others who could be called in by Gregg Berhalter are playing in Europe.
It’s not uncommon from players from any country to call another nation home for club play. Many of Spain, France, and Germany’s best play in the Premier League, and Argentina’s best player plays in La Liga. However, it seems like it would benefit U.S. Soccer as a whole if their own league were capable of providing the competitive environment to raise their level to the one Zlatan is talking about.
To do so, I think the money we spend on him and other older players could be better used in attracting younger talent to the league, or even keeping our own rising stars here where we can watch them play every week. MLS needs to shed the image of being a “retirement league” once and for all, and take a serious step forward in terms of raising the overall level of talent.
When I look back on my time as a Real Salt Lake season ticket member, I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch so many of the world’s greatest players in person, even if it was at the end of their careers. That said, I’d trade it all for a league that draws that talent here to play in their prime, and has a hand in developing USMNT players who can compete in the World Cup on a regular basis. It’s time to flip the switch, and spend our money on the future instead of the past.