Zlatan Ibrahimovic says he wants to be in MLS, but getting him there won’t be easy
Zlatan Ibrahimovic wants to play in Major League Soccer.
The Swedish star has said that before, of course, but it always sounded like a punchline waiting for a joke. Like LeBron James wanting to take his talents to South Korea instead of South Beach.
And there are 37 million good reasons not to take Ibrahimovic seriously this time either. That’s the number of dollars Forbes says he made last year — $30 million in base salary and $7 million in endorsements — in his final season with Paris Saint-Germain. Among soccer players only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo made more.
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MLS, meanwhile, has a $3.7-million salary cap. For an entire team.
But there’s at least one reason not to laugh the whole thing off: This time the Galaxy have publicly joined the chase. So while substantial obstacles exist, none are insurmountable for club President Chris Klein and Bruce Arena, the team’s coach and general manager, who have a remarkable track record of making longshots pay off.
At this time last year Steven Gerrard was in Liverpool, Giovani dos Santos was in Spain and Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong were both playing in Italy. Who could have imagined all four would be with the Galaxy now?
Klein and Arena not only imagined it, they were aggressive and creative enough to make it happen. They’ll need a similar amount of time and creativity to make the Ibrahimovic deal happen.
For starters there’s the contract. Ibrahimovic will have to accept a massive pay cut to come to the U.S., even under the best of circumstances.
MLS teams are allowed three designated-player exemptions, which allow them to pay salaries that go beyond the league’s maximum yet count only partially against the payroll cap. The Galaxy’s three DP spots are all taken, though, meaning all they could offer Ibrahimovic is a pro-rated $457,500, plus a few thousand more in so-called allocation money.
Ibrahimovic made that much every five days last season.
A DP spot could open in December with the anticipated retirement of Gerrard. But a trigger in De Jong’s contract gives that spot to him — at $6 million over the next two seasons — if he plays in 18 of the team’s final 24 games.
Dos Santos and Robbie Keane are the other two DPs and Dos Santos, signed through 2019, isn’t going anywhere. That leaves Keane, the team captain, who could either retire at 36 or be persuaded to take a deeply discounted, incentive-laden contract to create a spot for Ibrahimovic.
Either way, none of that would happen before next season.
Next comes the question of how much it will take to sign him.
The most lucrative single-season salary in MLS history is the $7.17 million Orlando City is paying Kaka. Even a charitable Ibrahimovic will need a lot more than that.
Phil Anschutz, the Galaxy’s billionaire owner, can write such a check without taking a deep breath — although that, too, would be an act of charity since the MLS financial model pretty much guarantees he won’t make the money back.
That may not matter. The signing would give the league Anschutz helped found — his name is on the MLS Cup — the swaggering superstar it has lacked and give his Galaxy a big leg up in its building rivalry with the expansion Los Angeles Football Club, whose well-funded ownership group will begin play in Exposition Park in 2018.
Then there’s the problem of what to do with Ibrahimovic until next season. The Galaxy will have to sign him soon — Ibrahimovic’s deal with PSG expires June 30, making him a free agent — to keep well-financed suitors such as Manchester United and the Chinese Super League away. But if they do, they’ll have to lend him out for at least five months.
One possible destination is the Swedish Allsvenskan, one of the few first-division leagues in the world that plays the same spring-to-fall schedule as MLS. A loan to Malmo would not only give the Galaxy a place to store their newest acquisition but it would allow Ibrahimovic to take a victory lap in his hometown with the team that gave him his professional debut.
So why should Ibrahimovic take a discount? Although he’s 34 he’s at the top of his game, having scored 38 goals in league play and 50 in all competitions this season. He also added 16 assists, giving him a hand in more than 45% of PSG’s goals.
Perhaps he, like a number of players who made enormous fortunes in Europe, has decided money isn’t everything. Over the last two years MLS has attracted players such as Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, David Villa and Kaka, all once thought too big to play here, even in their dotage.
Yet they all came to the U.S. to take their final bows and none of them said they did so for the cash.
Lampard, who spent two decades in the English Premier League, playing for four teams separated by less than 350 miles, was drawn by the adventure of a league that spanned a continent. Pirlo, who needed police escorts to go out in Italy, wanted to be anonymous again.
And Kaka, a former world player of the year and unabashed Donald Duck fan, signed with Orlando City because its stadium is a 20-minute drive from Disney World.
Then there’s Helena Seger, Ibrahimovic’s wife, who is set to launch a sportswear brand June 7. She is said to be pushing for a move to MLS — either New York or the Galaxy — while the player himself reportedly wants to explore acting when he’s done with soccer. So having Hollywood next door could be the final piece it takes to close a deal even the Galaxy concedes is unlikely.
But not impossible.
“Los Angeles,” Arena said with a wry grin, “happens to be No. 1 on a lot of people’s lists.”
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