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The Scarlet & Black

Rueter’s Digest: Zlatan’s arrival is proof that the MLS is legit now


On March 31, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles FC (LAFC)met for the first time ever in Major League Soccer (MLS). That game has already been christened “El Tráfico,” a pun invoking the famous “El Clásico” rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid as well as pointing out LA’s notoriously congested highways.

The Galaxy ended up winning an exciting 4-3 game against the expansion side, LAFC. While a seven-goal fixture always raises eyebrows, the real draw for fans came in the form of LA Galaxy player Zlatan Ibrahimović. Ibrahimović made headlines with his breathtaking two-goal performance off the bench, one of which came as a one-time volley from over forty yards out that would make even the prickliest soccer fan cheer in admiration.

Ibrahimović is the most recent in a long line of big name players to make the transition from Europe to the MLS, joining Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard, Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Beckham, Kaká and David Villa. However, unlike the other names on that list (Villa and Kaká notwithstanding), Ibrahimović still has something meaningful left to offer an MLS team, as demonstrated by his impressive performances in 2017 for Manchester United before being sidelined by an ACL injury.

Arguably one of the greatest players of his generation, Ibrahimović is a prolific goal scorer who has achieved both individual and club success on some of the best teams in the world, including Barcelona, PSG, Inter Milan and Milan.

While the recent arrivals of quality players such as Sebastian Giovinco and Carlos Vela have helped combat the notion that MLS is something of a “retirement league” for former world-class players, the fact that a player of Ibrahimović’s pedigree turned down moves to a more visible club in favor of the Galaxy should send a signal to the rest of the world that MLS is a rapidly improving league.

Increased television ratings, which are fueled by the conscious efforts of Fox Sports Network and ESPN to expand their soccer programming, have mirrored the corresponding talent boom. Similarly, MLS attendance figures have improved markedly in the past decade, led by Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers and Atlanta United FC, a recent expansion side who shattered attendance records by averaging over 40,000 fans a game in 2017 (even getting as high as 70,000).

So, what are the forces responsible for the rise of MLS into the American sports consciousness?

For starters, it is likely that American soccer is the beneficiary of the misfortunes of other professional sports leagues. Major League Baseball (MLB) has long faced accusations of being “too slow” and “boring,” and the National Football League (NFL) has been rocked by concussion scandals and a culture of violence that seems to have followed players off the field. In soccer, however, every possession is tense and action packed, as a single goal could be the deciding factor in a game.

Next, it is important to understand the way that many sports fans operate. While there are certainly die-hard soccer fans in all corners of the United States, a great many of them were likely exposed to European leagues first, and thus will naturally be more inclined to flip on the TV to watch an MLS game if a familiar face with proven pedigree is on the screen.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the quality of play in MLS is just plain old better than it was in years past. As someone who remembers watching MLS in the mid 2000s when the style of play resembled something akin to a high school match, it is astonishing to witness some of the intricate build-up play that teams routinely display in 2018.

Regardless of how many more goals he scores in MLS, Ibrahimović signifies a kind of cultural vanguard in US soccer. His arrival corresponds with the recent election of Carlos Cordiero as president of the US Soccer Federation, a man who hopes to bring US soccer into the 21st century by tackling on-field issues like player development and coaching, as well as off-field questions related to equity and accessibility.

Thus, while he may only represent the LA Galaxy on the field, Zlatan carries the hopes of an entire, newly soccer-crazed nation on his broad, tattooed shoulders.

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