MLS is no longer a retirement league for aging superstars. The LA Galaxy signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic doesn’t make that true, just like the success of one homegrown star doesn’t make it a league that churns out top talent, and one big signing doesn’t make it a major player in the global transfer market. So how should MLS be categorized?
Probably as a once-middling league trying to make the step up to second-tier status, capable of competing with the likes of Portugal and the Netherlands for top young talent, while boosting the immediate on-field product with some cheap prime-age signings. MLS clubs paid transfer fees to sign 22 players who are 23 or younger this offseason, while a handful of others were brought in on free transfers and loans with an option to buy.
Only five players who are 30 or older were signed from abroad this offseason, with the oldest being 32-year-old Reto Ziegler of FC Dallas. Most of the more experienced players who joined the league are at the top of their game, not nearing retirement — for example, Kim Kee-hee of the Seattle Sounders is 28, Yohan Croizet of Sporting Kansas City is 26, and Ager Aketxe of Toronto FC is 24.
Atlanta United’s ambitious capture of 18-year-old Argentine star Ezequiel Barco is hardly the new norm, but the days of MLS clubs signing up retirees has passed. The rest of the league seemed to learn its lesson from Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo’s failures. Superstars don’t do your brand any good when they’re the worst players on the pitch and they’re causing you to lose games.
But some aging superstars are worth the risk, between their drawing power and potential upside. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of a very small handful of players in their mid-30s who are worth that risk for an MLS club.
Ibrahimovic’s highly curated brand consisting mostly of recycled Chuck Norris jokes can get tiresome, but it’s also earned him a following of 30.7 million people on Instagram. Here’s how he announced his MLS arrival:
The list of active players who pique the interest of casual fans and sell tickets on name recognition alone is very small, likely consisting of just Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Ibrahimovic. There’s no bigger star than Ibrahimovic that an MLS club has been able to sign since Beckham, and if Messi and Ronaldo aren’t interested in coming to America, there might not be another player with his fame available for a decade.
Whether or not he’ll be any good is anyone’s guess. Ibrahimovic was solid for Manchester United last season, scoring 28 goals in all competitions, but he hasn’t made an impact since returning from a torn ACL. Generally, players who tear their ACL at age 35 do not return to their former level. But Ibrahmovic has proven he is, at the very least, fit. And it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if he became the MLS assist leader as a statue parked about 25 yards from goal, playing one-touch flicks to runners.
The LA Galaxy are not sweating over this, because they know whether or not this signing proves to be a failure, it was definitely worth taking the chance. It doesn’t matter if his knees don’t work because he’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And it doesn’t matter if fans call your club the biggest retirement home in the biggest retirement league, because you just signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Why did I just go through all the MLS transfers in order to make a point about the league prioritizing young talent, in order to justify the LA Galaxy’s signing of Ibrahimovic? Why does anyone need to explain why it’s OK for a team to sign Ibramhiovic? They signed him because he’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It doesn’t invalidate anyone’s youth movement. You always sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic if you can sign Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He’s Zlatan.