Column: MLS no longer a retirement home for aging European stars
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not your typical MLS player. And not just because he’s an international superstar who entered Saturday with three times as many goals as he’s had starts since joining the Galaxy last month.
What really makes Ibrahimovic stand out is the fact he’s a 36-year-old Swede whose best playing days are in the past, not the future. That’s an anomaly in a league that has shed its reputation as a retirement home for aging Europeans and remade itself as a launching pad for young and relatively unknown South Americans.
This winter 33 players from nine South American countries joined MLS, seven of them teenagers. Of the 37 designated players to sign with the league since 2016, just two were older than 30 while one-third were South Americans younger than 24, among them Uruguayan forward Diego Rossi of the Los Angeles Football Club.
That’s a change from just two seasons ago when dinosaurs like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and Andrea Pirlo roamed the MLS.
“It’s logical,” said Federico Higuain of the Columbus Crew. “The league has grown in the right way. It continues accepting more young players. Those players are continuing to help the league grow.
“More people are asking if I would recommend [MLS]. Obviously I say yes.”
Higuain, an Argentine, is one of 86 South Americans in MLS; that’s more than the number of Africans and Canadians combined. FC Dallas and Atlanta United both have three DPs from South America; the oldest is Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, a Venezuelan who is 24. He leads the league in goals, just ahead of Chilean Felipe Gutierrez of Sporting Kansas City, a relative graybeard at 27.
Jesus Medina, a 20-year-old Paraguayan with New York City FC, entered the weekend sharing the league lead in assists, joined by a couple of other young Latin Americans. So it’s not just where the players are from, but also the aggressive, creative and dynamic style of play they bring that is transforming MLS.
“Since I’ve come to MLS I’ve noticed a distinct change,” said midfielder Mauro Diaz, an Argentine in his sixth season with FC Dallas. “Players aren’t coming to retire but to start their careers. This is making the league and the teams better.”
The players are drawn by several factors, starting with pay. Ten South Americans made more than $1 million last season, according to figures compiled by the players union, and this winter Atlanta United paid a record $15-million transfer fee for Argentine teenager Ezequiel Barco.
There’s also the lifestyle in the U.S., which is often safer and more relaxed than many of the players’ home countries, yet still features cultural similarities and millions of Spanish speakers.
But the biggest factor, many players say, is the fact MLS provides both a place for them to improve while also offering exposure to the European leagues in which they someday hope to play. That marks a change from the route South Americans have traditionally taken to Europe, one that included long apprenticeships in domestic leagues or trials in Russia, Portugal or lower-division leagues abroad.
“From the start the objective has been to go to Europe,” Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron, the league’s newcomer of the year in 2017, said in Spanish. “I’m working toward that. If it’s now, if it’s in a half-year, I want to be prepared when it does come.”
Rossi, Barco and others are charting similar courses.
“To go to Europe is like a dream,” Rossi said.
Whether those players leave behind a legacy in MLS remains to be seen because while scoring this season is up to more than 3.1 goals a game, the highest level in 17 seasons, attendance is down leaguewide.
John Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president for soccer operations, believes fans will come around.
“You’re seeing a far more educated soccer fan and, for me, what has driven everything about what we’re doing is the quality of the product on the field,” he said. “I would rather have a young, exciting player that nobody’s heard of than somebody who had a good career and we’re sort of following off the interest of a career in Europe.
“Our fans are also starting to recognize that.”
The Galaxy, meanwhile, appear to be hedging their bets. The lineup the team started against Chicago last week — one that included Ibrahimovic and 37-year-old left back Ashley Cole, who combined for the game’s only goal — averaged 29.2 years of age, making it the third oldest used by an MLS team this season, according to the website transfermarkt.
However Kurt Schmid, the team’s director of scouting, isn’t ignoring youth — or South America.
“It’s always been a fertile market,” he said. “They’re younger, they’re faster, they’re better quality, they’re more technically sound. All that stuff helps raise the quality of the league for sure.
“I take good players where I find them. I don’t prejudge toward South America or against it. If you find a good player and if the numbers line up, we’ll bring them in.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11
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