From the transformative signing of David Beckham in 2007, MLS has gotten some big stars.
Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Didier Drogba, Nani and many more have come since Beckham, but 2023 brought the real opportunity to land in a different megastar stratosphere. After years of flirting, it was time to really go after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, two of the greatest soccer players in soccer history and two of the most famous people on the planet.
The hope, and perhaps even the outright expectation, was that Ronaldo and Messi would continue their long rivalry in the MLS.
The Saudi Professional League interrupted that dream when Ronaldo turned down MLS to sign with Al-Nassr in the winter, despite serious talks with Sporting Kansas City. As the Saudis convinced more big names and reports of incomprehensible sums of money lined up for Messi, it looked as if Saudi Arabia would get the follow-up to Messi vs. Ronaldo, not the MLS.
Messi turned down Saudi money for the Miami lifestyle (…and also a lot of money) to choose Inter Miami, but now he is in the minority.
Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino and N’Golo Kante went to Saudi Arabia, as well as great talents like Ruben Neves and Jota. Firmino has a connection to Lutz Pfannenstiel, sports director of MLS expansion team St. Louis City, and there was at least a long shot that he could come to MLS if he turned down European overtures. Instead, Firmino signed with Al-Alhi.
Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr in the winter, where he had 14 goals and two assists in 16 games in his first season. In January, the sports intelligence agency Twenty First Group classified the SPL as the 59 best national league in the world; at the same time, MLS was rated 29th.
“I think Saudi is a much better league than the United States,” Ronaldo said. “I said the Saudi league could be one of the top five in the next three years, but now it could be in just one (year).”
Suddenly, MLS isn’t the obvious alternative to stars leaving Europe. MLS (or any other league in the world, for that matter) can’t compete with the amount of money on offer in the Middle East. The Saudi Pro League is a threat to MLS for those aging stars, that much is clear. But how much should MLS care about that, or even really care?
the athletic spoke to sources, many of whom were granted anonymity to protect their jobs, to measure the temperature.
An MLS sporting director dismissed the Saudi league as a newer version of The big goals of the Chinese Super League: “It is not really a threat to us. They’re getting aging superstars, I hope we’re beyond that status in MLS.”
“Once they get past the 38-year-old Ronaldos and get more (Diogo) Jacks at 24, then it may be a bigger problem,” an agent said.
DC United head coach Wayne Rooney also pointed to the Chinese Super League.
“If it stands the test of time, it can grow,” Rooney said Tuesday at a news conference at the MLS All-Star Game. “Or you can do what China did 10 years ago when they invested a lot of money and then they fizzled out. It will be very intriguing to see how it goes.”
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MLS is much further along both on and off the pitch in 2023 than it was when Beckham arrived.
The infrastructure established in the last 15 years has prepared the league to be ready for the next step of growth, with the hope that Messi will be the rocket fuel. The Saudi league, sources say, is reminiscent of the 2007 version of MLS that broke through on the world stage with Beckham’s signing, but lacked the infrastructure.
MLS has also undergone on-field change over the past half-decade or more, with the arrival of younger players from abroad combined with a talent base much higher than that of the league in 2007. The fruits of the MLS overhaul Youth development is flourishing, with clubs producing higher quality players and a greater pool of professional talent that can be sold to larger leagues for a profit. Rather than a “retirement league,” or a place where older players go to end their careers at a more relaxed level, MLS is developing a more sustainable business model and higher quality league.
However, the Saudi league will have more money to spend and fewer league-imposed restrictions on doing so. As such, his development may be a bit faster than MLS’s steady growth on and off the field. The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which controls four of the best teams in the Saudi Pro League, invested resources in LIV Golf, a circuit that challenges the PGA Tour. The two merged in June.
“I’ve seen it happen with China and I wasn’t worried any more than I am about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “It is the complete opposite. I think the fact that we can spread the power and influence of professional football around the world gives us all or in emerging markets an opportunity to think that it’s not just about Europe. Good?”
MLS roster rules play a big factor here. Clubs can sign up to three “Designated Players” (DPs), which means that three players on the roster can be paid an unlimited amount but hit the salary cap at a flat rate. As such, the DP breakdown is heavily concentrated on attacking positions. Players like Jordan Henderson and Fabinho, Liverpool’s midfield duo recently linked to Saudi clubs, were highly unlikely to be targeted by MLS teams simply because of their roles on the pitch.
Philippe Coutinho, a Brazilian attacking midfielder who has also been linked to the Saudi Pro League, would have been a more likely MLS target. Multiple agents have pointed out that there are some players who will put salary above all else, including lifestyle, and it would have been difficult to attract them to MLS anyway.
“It’s a tough place to live,” said a Saudi Arabian MLS sporting director. “You have to pay more for the players, it’s only worth it for the big stars.”
One of the attractions of MLS for stars abroad is living in the United States and the American way of life. Many players spend time here, like Messi, who already had a luxury penthouse in Miami. Previous players in MLS and its predecessor league have been open about how much they enjoyed being able to go out in public without being recognized. or at least not being recognized as often.
“There are guys who play for the money and guys who play for the lifestyle,” said one agent. “For me, the guys who go to the Middle East only care about money. The lifestyle is MLS.”
The domino effect will be interesting to follow. European clubs that transfer top-tier players to Saudi Arabia for a lot of money will turn around and spend it. Maybe that will drive the market for MLS clubs to continue selling players to Europe, or maybe it will come at the cost of some young South American players coming to MLS before heading to Europe. Perhaps even the Saudi league will go straight to South America and become a new competitor for the rising talent that MLS has routinely targeted for the past decade.
On the field, racking up big-name stars hasn’t always correlated with results in MLS. In fact, it rarely has. NYCFC won nothing with David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. The Red Bulls were a successful regular-season team under Henry, but they had a habit of exiting the playoffs early. The Galaxy did not get very far with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Steven Gerrard’s 18-month stint with the Galaxy was a flop. The Chicago Fire has been among the worst teams in the league for a year and a half under Xherdan Shaqiri.
Toronto FC spent lavishly on talent to fuel its treble-winning season in 2017, but Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were all in their prime. A more recent spending spree at Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi has come with disastrous results. Gareth Bale won MLS Cup with LAFC last year, but was reduced to an infrequent role due to injuries and was not a focal point of his salary cap. Atlanta United won the MLS Cup with a core of rising South American stars, led by Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez.
But the stars keep drawing and the stars keep selling. They can boost the MLS economy and bring more attention to a league that is still trying to make its way into mainstream American culture.
Many Americans are tuning in to the Premier League and Champions League, widely considered the two best club competitions in the world. If a fan were to tune in to a soccer match exclusively for youth development, why not watch, say, the Dutch or Argentinean league? MLS differentiates itself with big stars, parity and the playoff system. The stars are the way the league gets the most attention in the United States for soccer fans who don’t follow MLS.
Toronto FC’s attendance last season was strong with Insigne and Bernardesechi, despite the club finishing well below the playoff line. Red Bulls attendance has dwindled since Henry’s days, though it remained strong in the immediate years after his retirement as the team was one of the best in the league. Sources from other clubs point to an increase in ticket sales when a player like Chicharito or others came to the city.
Messi’s attraction has helped bring former teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba to Miami. Maybe this will help in future deals.
Although not yet a direct threat, MLS and its stakeholders will continue to monitor how the Saudi Pro League is progressing, which players come next, and whether it is sustainable.
(Photo: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)