Major League Soccer doesn’t need Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
And yet, MLS could really benefit from Zlatan being here for a year or two.
On Friday, the 36-year-old Swedish superstar announced his arrival in Los Angeles to play for the Galaxy in the most Zlatan way possible, with a simple yet charmingly arrogant full-page add in the L.A. Times.
The signing has raised from the dead a conversation about what kind of league, exactly, MLS is and should be. For the first two decades of its life, it was plainly the sort of circuit that provided a cozy home for aging stars looking to glide into retirement, ideally within easy distance to New York City or Los Angeles.
There’s no need to rehash all the big names that have passed through the league over the years. We’ll just collectively call it the Beckham Era, following in the wake of David Beckham’s signing in 2007. Certainly, there were big names recruited before then, but the adoption of the Designated Player rule – initially dubbed the “Beckham Rule” – opened the floodgates.
And that was fine. It brought attention and credibility and accelerated the growth of teams, infrastructure and revenue. But MLS was also affixed with the dreaded “retirement league” label.
Lately, that image has changed.
The last batch of aged star imports had a relatively limited impact. These big names lumbered in but in a lot of cases delivered little except the cachet of their reputation. Steven Gerrard was forgettable with the Galaxy. Kaka was solid-but-not-exceptional for Orlando City. Didier Drogba was influential on the Montreal Impact but forever seemed on the brink of leaving. New York City FC spanned the entire spectrum: Andrea Pirlo was a bust; Frank Lampard was good for a season and mostly absent for another; and David Villa has turned out to be an MVP and perhaps the best striker in league history.
Yet none changed the landscape for MLS. There hasn’t been a seminal DP signing among those expensively extracted from Europe to cast their refracted shine over the league. There was no other Beckham. No second coming of Thierry Henry. No new Cuauhtemoc Blanco, even.
The first paradigm shift was a brief strategy of bringing home the pillars of the U.S. national team, rather than foreign stars, resulting in a flurry of massive contracts for the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and, later, Tim Howard and a few others.
But in the last year or two, teams have turned toward younger but unestablished talent on the upswing of its career to fill those higher-paying roster slots, and to spend whatever transfer money there is on a cast of young South Americans. That trend was driven home by Atlanta United’s record signing of Argentinian teenage super-prospect Ezequiel Barco this winter.
Signing Zlatan, he of the strutting persona and piercing glares and wondrous goals and outsized character, would be a regression to the mean, of sorts. A temporary one, perhaps. But nevertheless a return to the league’s old star-loving ways.
The implications thereof might be to remind the world’s players of what the league was, rather than what it is. And it once was a place where you went after you’d already played your best soccer, not when you hadn’t played it yet.
Since reputation is everything when players choose their next league, that could be damaging. A lot of progress has been made, and a lot of work done, for MLS to establish itself as a launching pad where promising young players gladly sign.
The league doesn’t need Zlatan. It doesn’t need him to fill seats or get people to tune in. Some more will come to the stadiums to see him. And a few extra households might flip their TVs to a game that promises his participation. But he won’t move the needle significantly.
Yet there is real upside to bringing Zlatan stateside as well.
There has never been anyone quite like him in soccer. Eccentrics are rare enough in the sport, which prefers its players predictable and uniform. Eccentrics who happen to be among the best of their generation are unheard of. Diego Maradona was hedonistic but not unusual in anything other than his talent and temperament. Johan Cruyff was a famously difficult man, but he largely conformed to the norms of his time – in spite of somehow becoming a counter-culture icon. Beckham, for his fame and looks, was the king of bland.
Zlatan has not only scored goals like this …
But has also done enough notable things to make for endless YouTube clips of his various incidents and utterances …
A popular Twitter account parodies his feats.
— Zlatan Facts (@ZIatanFacts) August 24, 2015
That’s what Zlatan offers MLS.
His star power, and the weight of his 483 competitive goals over a career that includes 11 domestic league titles in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and France. But, more than that, he offers his charisma.
MLS, as a league, is light on narrative. That’s perfectly normal. Ten of its 23 teams began play in 2009 or later. Rivalries haven’t really developed organically yet. Identities are nascent. The storylines are only just being written.
What’s more, MLS lacks personalities. While the pivot to young, mostly South American talent makes all the world of sense in raising the level of play and the league’s standing in the global marketplace, the drawback is that you lose the characters that are fully formed and broadly appealing.
The Scouse grinder Gerrard. The suave, wine-sipping Pirlo. The elegant Londoner Lampard. The indomitable Ivorian Drogba. The tireless Villa. The smiling Brazilian Kaka. For their successes and failures, they brought with them a well-established image that facilitated the promotion of the league.
The 18-year-old Barco doesn’t do that for you. He isn’t yet developed as a character. Because he isn’t fully mature as a man, let alone a player.
Zlatan can still play. And he could bring a welcome injection of personality. That probably outweighs the setback to the league’s budding image as a home for up-and-comers.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.