By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Mar 23, 2018) US Soccer Players – In the pantheon of famous MLS signings, nothing will ever top the LA Galaxy’s 2007 capture of David Beckham. It’s easy to forget, more than a decade on, just what a coup LA’s acquisition of Beckham truly was. It wasn’t just about Beckham’s famous right foot. It was the sheer weight of his celebrity. Beckham made waves because he transcended soccer, something the Galaxy happily exploited when he made the move to the United States at the age of 32.
There’s also the small matter that only one player can be the first of that kind. Beckham inaugurated the push for MLS to sign European superstars towards the end of their careers, serving as a grand experiment that led the league into a bright new era.
It’s with that history in mind that we consider the latest ultra-famous player to join the Galaxy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player with one of the most impressive resumes in the history of the sport. He’s won championships in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and France. Over the last decade, he’s also scored more goals than any player not named Ronaldo or Messi. Zlatan makes international headlines simply by talking, and now he’s coming to America.
If not for Beckham, or Thierry Henry who followed, Zlatan’s signing would feel very different. When those players arrived, MLS was thirsting for a little recognition, a little respect, and a lot of publicity. Grabbing big names made sense as a means to reach a time when the league would no longer covet 35-ish near-retirees because they would no longer be necessary.
Maybe MLS still needs to do some growing up, but it’s hard not to see it as a distinctly different competition at the dawn of the DP age. MLS in the midst of a spending revolution that brought in a long list of young, talented players from abroad. Resources previously allocated for aging European stars is now going into investments in players still developing. The reach and prestige of the league are such that some young players with options in Europe are instead choosing to join American and Canadian clubs.
MLS doesn’t “need” Ibrahimovic, but Ibrahimovic is here. The impact he can have on soccer in the United States won’t be as transformative as Beckham’s, though he can push MLS beyond traditionally comfortable norms that often leave it seeming bland and boring.
Ibrahimovic’s ego is famous. Love him or hate him, he commands an audience wherever he goes. Zlatan is magnetic in a way few people, to say nothing of soccer players, ever are. He is orders of magnitude more interesting than most stars. MLS is bound to get a lot more entertaining.
The strange fact about the Galaxy’s signing of Ibrahimovic is that he does not fit any of their pressing needs. The club traded for Ola Kamara in the offseason to shore up their goal-scoring. There’s really no reason to think that Kamara won’t be successful in the role, or that adding another forward of his type is going to make things better. LA’s deficiencies are almost entirely at the back, injuries aside, leading to obvious questions about why the club is bringing in a 36-year old with a recent major knee injury who does very little to no defending.
Like DP signings of a bygone era, this one smacks of a desire to make some extra noise in a very noisy Los Angeles sports scene. The Galaxy has always competed for attention in Southern California with the other major American sports, a plight that fed the plan to go after Beckham and the club’s rebranding effort in the aftermath of his arrival. LA did everything they could to establish themselves as worthy claimants to the town’s glitzy reputation. For years, they maintained a level of fame that no other MLS team could approach.
The Galaxy is getting out-glitzed in 2018. Battling it out with teams from other sports was always difficult but par for the course. Now, LA finds itself overshadowed by a brand new MLS franchise that hasn’t even yet played a game at home.
Falling flat and finishing last in 2017 didn’t help matters. With LAFC’s arrival grabbing the spotlight, the Galaxy now needs to quickly improve why also challenging LAFC for the attention of soccer fans in the region. LAFC signed Mexican star Carlos Vela, established a visual identity that matched Angelino sensibilities, and spent lavishly to start construction on a state-of-the-art arena in a more accessible and fashionable area than the Galaxy’s Stub Hub Center.
Is the Ibrahimovic signing a reaction to LAFC’s threat? It’s quite possible that the Galaxy would have chased the forward even without a new city rival. However, it doesn’t take a leap of logic to imagine that the power of Ibrahimovic’s fame and the headlines he’ll garner are major parts of LA’s thinking. It’s tough to label the signing “irresponsible” in that context. It’s still worth stressing that the acquisition does not follow traditional ideas on team building for a club working its way back up the standings in the Western Conference.
It’s also difficult to say how successful Ibrahimovic can be on the field. As he’s a famously intense competitor, it would be unfair to presume he won’t give his full effort for LA. Distractions are always a looming problem, but this is still a world-class athlete with something left to give. That’s assuming his recently repaired knee holds up and he isn’t thrown by the travel, heat, and artificial surface issues that are part of life in Major League Soccer.
Ibrahimovic in MLS is a big deal. He’s certain to drive attendance in Carson and around the league. MLS will benefit from his personality and potential as an outsized hero and villain.
Not Beckham, but not bad. Not part of a “retirement league” trend, but an outlier made justifiable because of who he is and what he has achieved.
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(Photo by Michael Janosz – ISIPhotos.com)