The Los Angeles Galaxy’s signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic last Friday set off a firestorm of banter on social media.
Fans and pundit alike have passionately debated what the arrival of the 36-year-old Ibrahimovic in LA means for Major League Soccer, and how his addition to the Galaxy’s roster is either detrimental or beneficial to the league.
With this in mind, here is an argument and a counter for why the “Super Swede” signing with LA is both bad and good for MLS.
MORE EVIDENCE THAT MLS IS A RETIREMENT LEAGUE
Point: MLS has long been viewed by outsiders, especially “Euro soccer snobs,” as a place where marquee players the wrong side of 30 come to play out the final few years of their careers, signing big-money deals that they would never get in any “halfway decent” league. The list of such stars who cashed in include Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, neither of whom did their reputations much good during their short tenures in MLS. The Galaxy’s singing of Ibrahimovic further underlines the widely-held belief that MLS is a retirement league for aging players who are past their prime.
Counter-point: Did critics label the English Premier League a “retirement league” when a 34-year-old Ibrahimovic finished the 2016-17 season with 17 goals, good enough for sixth in the scoring race? In total, he scored 29 goals in 53 appearances for Manchester United. Surely, that’s a reflection of his skill, and not an indictment on the quality of the English top flight. How about when Udinese forward Antonio Di Natale finished as the top scorer in Serie A in 2009-10 and 2010-11 when he was 32 and 33? There are countless other examples of players in their 30s who have starred at some of the biggest European clubs in recent years, but their success didn’t lead critics to arguing they were competing in “retirement leagues.”
IBRAHIMOVIC IS PAST HIS PRIME
Point: At 36, Ibrahimovic’s best days are behind him. Ibrahimovic joined Manchester United ahead of the 2016-17 season, but since injuring his right knee last April, he has made just two starts and five substitute appearances. His last Premier League match was against Burnley on Dec. 26. With a host of better and younger options available to manager Jose Mourinho, Manchester United didn’t need Ibrahimovic. He had become surplus to requirements at Old Trafford, and it says something about what he can contribute at his age that the Red Devils simply terminated his contract and let him walk away.
Counter-point: There’s no denying that Ibrahimovic’s injury problems are a concern. But people are making far too much about his age, and the suggestion that he won’t be able to score or make an impact in MLS at age 36 remains to be seen. Age isn’t a barrier for goal scorers in MLS, and you need only look at former Barcelona forward David Villa – he’s bagged 93 goals since joining New York City FC in 2015, and the Spaniard finished second in scoring (23 goals) and was second in voting for the league MVP award last season when he was 35. Marco Di Vaio and Didier Drogba scored tons of goals for Montreal when they were deep into their 30s, helping the Impact qualify for the playoffs. Ibrahimovic is also a winner, having won league titles at some of the biggest clubs in the world (Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax, PSG, Inter and AC Milan) and having a veteran with his experience will benefit LA’s crop of young players, and re-invigorate a team that isn’t nearly as relevant in MLS as it was just a few short years ago.
THIS IS A PR MOVE BY THE LA GALAXY
Point: The Galaxy slumped to its worst season in franchise history last year, finishing dead last in the MLS standings, but scoring wasn’t the main problem – instead, they coughed up 67 goals, the second-worst defensive record in MLS. Still, the Galaxy already added major firepower up front in the off-season when they traded for Ola Kamara, who netted 34 goals over the past two years for Columbus. And lest we forget, LA also has Mexican forward Giovani dos Santos. Simply put, the Galaxy don’t need Ibrahimovic. That’s not why the signed him. This isn’t about soccer. It’s about PR. That’s why LA signed Ibrahimovic – to help raise the team’s global profile. And with the expansion LAFC turning heads and making noise early on in this campaign, the Galaxy needed to do something to steal the headlines away from their new city rivals and assert themselves as THE team to watch in the second biggest market in the United States.
Counter-point: To a large degree, this is about PR. But, so what? Even at age 36, Ibrahimovic is one of the biggest names and most recognizable faces in sports. If the Swede can draw more attention to MLS, and he is able to make more fans from around the world who normally wouldn’t give MLS the time of day to sit up and take notice of the league, why is that a bad thing? Ibrahimovic is also one of the biggest characters in sports, and his big personality is a perfect fit for the bright lights of Hollywood. His antics and track record of speaking bluntly will not go unnoticed in LA, and will likely lead to MLS gaining more mainstream media attention and coverage. Again, why is that a bad thing? In case anybody forgot, soccer is a business, and the Galaxy signing one of the best players of the last 10 years makes good business and PR sense.