Zlatan Ibrahimović is the latest big-name soccer star to leave the high-profile European leagues and join a Major League Soccer (MLS) side in North America. The 36-year-old Swede made his debut for LA Galaxy in March, contributing two goals to the club’s 4-3 victory over Los Angeles FC. But goal scoring and ability on the pitch isn’t the only way that star players from Europe have boosted the MLS’s fortunes.
The Beckham rule
Although the MLS has sometimes been nicknamed the “retirement league” for its reliance on over-the-hill European superstars, in fact, the benefits these players have brought to the league and to soccer in the US and Canada generally is significant. David Beckham was in many ways the player who set the standard for all celebrity designated players – indeed, the MLS designated player rule, allowing up to three players to be signed for an amount outside a club’s regular salary cap, is often known as the Beckham rule for this reason.
When it was confirmed that David Beckham, then perhaps the most famous footballer in the world, would be joining LA Galaxy in January 2007, it was the biggest boost that Major League Soccer had ever experienced. Indeed, it’s arguable that if this hadn’t happened, the league wouldn’t exist in anything like its present form. No-one outside of the US and Canada was even aware of the MLS before this point, but suddenly the league had a global reputation and all eyes were on the 2007 season, if only to see how well Beckham would play in this new environment.
For LA Galaxy, the publicity attracted a £20m shirt sponsorship deal from nutrition company Herbalife, and gate revenue went through the roof, with 11,000 new season ticket holders. Beckham left his five-year contract a year early, returning to Europe to play his final season before retiring with Paris St-Germain, and spent several months on loan to AC Milan before that. Nevertheless, his initial signing was hugely important for both LA Galaxy and the MLS in general, and on the pitch, he helped the Los Angeles club to several victories.
Since then, signing star players has been a mixed bag for MLS clubs. While some stars such as Andrea Pirlo or Kaka failed to meet expectations, the arrival of a big name has certainly encouraged fans to get involved, with sports betting on the MLS taking a new twist when an older player with a long and glittering track record is playing for a club. Robbie Keane signed to LA Galaxy around the time Beckham left, and went on to take part in two MLS cup-winning campaigns. Similarly, Thierry Henry did great things for the New York Bulls following his 2010 signing, including helping them to win the Supporters’ Shield in 2013, and David Villa has continued to impress at NYCFC.
Star players do wonders in terms of raising the profile of the MLS, both nationally and abroad. They encourage clubs, other players and fans to take the MLS seriously, and not to see it as a poor relation of European soccer. With the MLS looking to expand to 28 clubs by 2020, these players earn their fees both on the pitch and off.