A clash of narratives is set to take place when the LA Galaxy travel to Bridgeview, Illinois to take on the Chicago Fire this weekend.
Major League Soccer has gone to great lengths to tout how the players entering the league in recent seasons are younger, and more likely to be in their prime years. And sure enough, Saturday’s match will feature performers like Jonathan dos Santos, 27, and Ola Kamara, 28, for the Galaxy, as well as 27-year-old Aleksandar Katai for the Fire. While Nemanja Nikolic has passed the dreaded 30-year-old mark, he’s still the reigning Golden Boot winner. With the exception of Dos Santos, none were well known upon entering MLS, but Kamara and Nikolic in particular have added to the league’s overall quality.
Yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off the biggest — albeit aging — stars from each of the two teams in Chicago’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, 33, and the Galaxy’s 36-year-old forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The two were teammates for a brief time with Manchester United, and given how Schweinsteiger has been dropping back to play sweeper at times this season, the two players may find themselves occupying the same parts of the field more than one might expect, though Ibrahimovic is expected to come off the bench.
Chicago GM Nelson Rodriguez noted that the younger-vs.-older narrative “has become a bit skewed”. Gone are the days when commercial considerations came first.
“The decision to bring Bastian in was a footballing decision,” he told ESPN FC. “It wasn’t a marketing decision, it wasn’t a commercial decision. It was this was the guy that we felt we needed to help us advance our game model.”
Rodriguez’s view is shared by LA Galaxy president Chris Klein, who lauded Schweinsteiger’s contribution to the Fire.
“[The big-name players] have to be successful, and there are a number of ways that they can do that,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly how many goals and assists that Schweinsteiger had last year, but his impact on the club was visible. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is going to show up in a different way for the Galaxy.”
The fans in Chicago are eager to find out how. Toyota Park’s 20,000 seats are sold out, the first time in four home games this season that has occurred. The Zlatan Effect is real.
“On his debut we saw ticket sales spike right after that game,” said Rodriguez about Ibrahimovic’s epic performance against LAFC. “To be fair, we were tracking to sell out that game prior. But when he arrived, made his very dramatic entry, the pace of ticket sales accelerated and we have dynamic pricing so we were able to adjust our pricing, so whether we would have sold out or not, we were able to make more ticket revenue.”
This clash of big stars is one that is becoming more rare. Back in 2015, a match between the Galaxy and New York City FC featuring the likes of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard drew plenty of attention, even though Lampard ultimately had to miss the match through injury.
Out of that quartet, only Villa ever delivered on a consistent basis, and MLS seemed to drift away from an approach of signing big names at the end of their careers. It was around the time of that 2015 match that MLS first implemented Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), and the result has been a greater depth and breadth of quality throughout the league. At minimum, MLS has looked at aging stars with a bit of a more skeptical eye.
Yet for all of the attention heaped on TAM and the players it provides, as well as the academy and USL pipelines, the reality is that MLS still accrues ancillary benefits from having the Schweinsteigers and Ibrahimovics of the world in the league. On a certain level, the league still needs them, provided they deliver on the field.
“Players can come in and they can take over a game or score a great goal or do some things like that,” said Klein. “But sustained success is much different, and when you have a player like Schweinsteiger or Zlatan Ibrahimovic come in and want to be part of a team and share their knowledge with younger players and want to help create and be a part of culture that we have in our league and in our clubs, then it can be something much different. I think there is value in that and I certainly see both of these players bringing that to their respective clubs.”
Their roles as ambassadors can’t be overlooked either. Granted, Ibrahimovic has been in MLS barely two weeks, but Schweinsteiger has embraced the league — while also acknowledging some of its faults and limitations — in a way that helps its street cred.
“I think the league overall, when these guys are willing to participate in promotional activities, when they give honest assessments of the league, and those honest assessments indicate how difficult the league is, I think those are all a help,” said Rodriguez. “They add a different flavor to the league.”
This weekend’s sellout crowd also speaks to how fans are drawn in via different ways. For some it’s all about the team. For others it’s about the big stars.
“I think this idea of heroes and villains is important in sport,” said Rodriguez. “A villain to one group, like the evil empire that is the New York Yankees, is this Yankees Nation to another. I think those things are important and will constantly be in flux. It might be the return of an old coach against his former team, or players that were traded for one another, or in this case teammates that share mutual respect and now have come to a renewed chapter in their life. I think those storylines are important, they’ll always be shifting and changing, but I think that players will generally be always front and center.”
That will certainly be the case this weekend in Bridgeview.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.