Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 12: Rooney, Zlatan and a turning point for MLS?

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 12: Rooney, Zlatan and a turning point for MLS?

ALEX BROTHERTON looks at MLS and whether 2018 represented a turning point for the league’s image and profile on a worldwide stage. Part 12 of our 18 for 18 series recapping football this year.

For years now, America’s professional soccer league, Major League Soccer, has been looked down upon by football fans across the world. Whether it was the poor-quality football, YouTube clips of the unusual 35-yard penalty shootout format or simply the usage of the word “soccer” instead of “football”; fans in more traditional footballing countries have always had ammunition with which to tease their American counterparts. But perhaps the biggest stick used to bash MLS with has been the notion that over the years, European superstars in the twilight of their careers have rushed across the Atlantic to pick up a final pay cheque, creating a league of retirees with little left to offer. When a 36-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimović and a 32-year-old Wayne Rooney made the switch from the EPL to MLS in 2018, the ‘retirement home’ argument seemed justified. However, their performances and impacts on the pitch tell a different story.

There is no question that Ibrahimović and Rooney have both been sensational since they arrived in the States. Zlatan arrived at LA Galaxy after an underwhelming spell at Manchester United, prompting doubters to claim that he was past it. But as soon as the Swede came off the bench on his debut he began proving them wrong. With his side 3-2 down to Los Angeles FC in the inaugural LA derby, the Swede scored one of the greatest goals in MLS history, firing in an audacious 35-yard volley to tie the game. The video of his wonder goal went viral, bringing the world’s attention to MLS. In injury time he headed in the winner to complete a 0-3 deficit to 4-3 comeback win for Galaxy, capping off a superhero-like 20-minute cameo. Other moments of brilliance followed, including a stunning roundhouse kick goal against Toronto, in a debut season that saw Ibra bring a return of 22 goals and 10 assists.

While Rooney had less time to make an impression, only making his DC United debut in July, he nevertheless impressed. The English striker’s 12 goals and seven assists dragged DC from the foot of the Eastern Conference into the play-offs, but what was most impressive was his ability to raise the game of those around him. Rooney’s hunger, leadership and quality that seemed to desert him over the last few years in the Premier League came roaring back as he inspired his teammates with luscious free kicks and a tenacious work ethic.

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While it would be naïve to dismiss money as a factor in the pair’s decision to play in America, both, while past their best, could have easily signed for European clubs and earned high salaries playing in more prestigious competitions. But the fact that two top players were attracted to the MLS, before the deterioration of their powers demanded that they play at a lower level, suggests that North America’s premier soccer league holds a certain appeal for top players.

That appeal likely stems from the fact that in recent seasons a host of high calibre and emerging talents have taken their talents to the MLS. This is a trend that has both resulted from and resulted in a constant improvement in the quality of football on display. Gone are the days when a superstar designated player (a marquee signing whose wages do not count against his team’s salary cap) would be supported by a cast of sub-par journeymen and youngsters. Today, most sides have at least four or five quality players that hit the upper echelons of the wage bracket. The main factor that enabled this change was the increase in Targeted Allocation Money.

In the words of MLS, “Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) are funds strategically provided by the league to teams to add or retain players that will make an immediate impact on the field”. The introduction of TAM in 2015, with each team initially receiving $100,000, essentially raised the salary cap for every team, giving them greater freedom and more money to play with to build their squads. By 2018, the amount had increased to $1.2million, with an extra discretionary $2.8million available for 2018 and 2019. The increased investment has undoubtedly improved the league and brought greater balance to the majority of team rosters. The scheme has allowed the likes of Victor Vazquez, Ola Kamara and Roman Torres to join Toronto FC, Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders respectively, talents that these teams otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.

As well as using TAM money to sign top talents, MLS side have spots available on their rosters for ‘designated players’. The designated player rule was brought in when David Beckham made his move to LA Galaxy in 2007, with the purpose of allowing teams to sign internationally recognised stars without encountering financial difficulties. Essentially this meant that teams could rapidly improve their roster while simultaneously raising the global profile of MLS with a marquee player. However, too much emphasis was put on marketing; teams were signing ageing superstars who brought global attention to the league but provided little quality on the pitch. This inhibited the development of MLS from a footballing perspective.

In recent years however, MLS franchises have adopted a different approach. Teams are more often than not using their designated player tags on younger, more promising talents who can use their on-the-pitch ability, rather than superstar status, to develop the league. Players such as Miguel Almiron and Alejandro Romero Gamarra have been signed by MLS clubs as they represent better value for money purchases, especially if they can later be sold on for profit. The players themselves are seeing the benefits of moving North, as playing in a decent quality league with an ever-increasing global exposure provides them with a “bridge to Europe”, as Miguel Almiron, Atlanta United’s Paraguayan midfielder, described it. The recent willingness of Europe’s elite clubs to turn to MLS for future stars shows that the quality of players is improving. Earlier this year, German champions Bayern Munich secured the services of Canadian winger Alphonso Davies, with a fee that could rise to £16.66million. As long as young players keep recognising the quality of the MLS and teams realise that they can find better long-term talents outside of Europe, the league will develop into a pool of quality players approaching their prime, not waving goodbye to it.  

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Improving club performance in CONCACAF (North America’s UEFA equivalent) competition adds to the notion that MLS is evolving. American and Canadian teams have long struggled on the continental stage. 17 different teams have represented the MLS in the CONCACAF Champions League since 2008, but none have been crowned champions. MLS teams have struggled against Mexican opposition in particular, winning only five and losing 21 knockout round games against LIGA MX clubs. However, in recent years there have been glimpses of hope that the tide may change.

After a barren run during the noughties, three of the past eight CCL finals have featured an MLS side. Real Salt Lake (2010-11), Montreal Impact (2014-15) and Toronto FC (2018) have all been runners up, and even defeated a few Mexican teams along the way. March 2018 saw an unprecedented scenario, as all three MLS teams completed a clean sweep against Liga MX opposition in the first leg of the CCL quarter-finals. New York Red Bulls became only the third MLS side to win on Mexican soil in the CCL, defeating Club Tijuana 2-0, before Toronto FC prevailed 2-1 at home to Tigres and Seattle Sounders defeated Chivas Guadalajara 1-0. The Red Bulls and Toronto then made history by both eliminating their Mexican opponents from the competition and by giving MLS two CCL semi-finalists for the first time. After years in the shadows, MLS sides appear ready to mix it up with the CONCACAF big boys.

However, while MLS sides may be starting to match their Mexican counterparts on the pitch, off the pitch they still have a lot of catching up to do. Soccer broadcasting in the US is big business as unlike in countries such as the UK that have many restrictions on broadcasts, like the Saturday 3pm blackout, a huge range of matches are available on television. But according to a study by worldsoccertalk.com, MLS games are forming a rather small percentage of live games shown and overall viewership, lagging behind the likes of Liga MX and the Premier League. The data shows that in 2017, MLS matches accounted for 7% of the 1455 live games shown, commanding 6% of the average viewing. While these numbers are increasing year on year, the 17% games shown and 29% viewership of Liga MX, coupled with the 17% of games shown and 19% viewership of the EPL indicates that the priorities of many US viewers still lie outside their domestic league. It’s somewhat unusual for a country’s domestic league to not be the most viewed, so MLS may have a hard time developing into an elite league unless it can claim more of this viewership. In fairness the league was only founded in 1996, so has had far less time than other leagues to cultivate a loyal, multigenerational fan base. However, more needs to be done to make domestic football a top viewing option for American sports fans if the league wants to develop and catch up with the rest of the world.

Personnel wise, MLS has not switched entirely from the near-retirement to the up-and-coming. While, as previously mentioned, the number of younger players being signed by clubs is trending in a positive direction, there are still many older players who struggled greatly in Europe but who have found success in MLS. A prime example of this is NYRB’s star striker Bradley Wright-Phillips. The son of Arsenal legend Ian Wright struggled to reach his potential in England after graduating from the Manchester City academy and was outshone by his older brother Shaun, who had much more success in the Premier League and for the England national team. Bradley made little impact in the first team at Manchester City, later finding more success in the Championship and League One with the likes of Southampton, Plymouth and Charlton Athletic.

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However, as soon as he scored his first goal in a Red Bulls shirt, he became a different player. Since 2013 BWP has scored a remarkable 106 goals in 171 games, ranking him eighth amongst MLS all-time goal scorers. While this achievement shouldn’t be belittled or dismissed, it does ask questions of the league’s quality. If a player who scored 77 goals over a nine-year, 272 game career spent mostly in England’s second and third divisions can move to MLS and so drastically improve his goal scoring fortune, then has the league really moved on from its retirement league image?  

Wright-Phillips is not an anomaly though, as there are other notable examples. Jozy Altidore was snapped up by Sunderland in 2013 after fine performances for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie and the US national team sparked worldwide interest. Tipped to emulate the American success stories of Landon Donavan and Clint Dempsey, Altidore had a disastrous time at the Black Cats, as was the case with Hull City and Bursaspor previously, scoring only once in 42 appearances. Yet as soon as he returned his native league he flourished and played an integral role in Toronto FC’s 2017 MLS Cup winning season. Similar is the case of Jamaica international Giles Barnes, who after showing promise as a youngster at Derby County, had dismal spells at Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and Doncaster Rovers. Yet since 2012 he has found relative success with the likes of Houston Dynamo, Vancouver Whitecaps, Orlando City and Colorado Rapids. The fact that struggling players like these have for years been coming to MLS and becoming the league’s star players indicates that the league maybe hasn’t taken such a big step forward.

In an attempt to get an ‘inside’ opinion, I spoke to one of the hosts of the MLS Aces Podcast, New York City FC fan, Tom Sweezy. He agreed that more and more talented players are moving to MLS and that while the league is far from being on a par with Europe’s major competitions, it is visibly improving year on year. But there is one thing he said that brought home the reality of the situation: “Fans of soccer in Europe have gotten to see in person the likes of Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimović and David Villa their entire lives. Younger soccer fans in American have not always had that access. MLS is not a retirement league, but it is not the EPL either. We are in the middle and we are growing”.

It’s easy to forget that MLS only formed in 1996 and given its infancy it has developed remarkably quickly. It would be unrealistic to expect a professional competition only 22 years old to be on a par with leagues three or even four times its age. In the not-too-distant future, I’ve no doubt it will be.

Thanks to Tom Sweezy of the MLS Aces podcast for his assistance @MLSAces

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