Major League Soccer is facing a dilemma with regard to signing star forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s as if the Swede is in a swimming pool, trying to convince the league that the temperature is fine. But so far, MLS has wisely done little more than dip its proverbial toe in the water.
MLS would no doubt love a performer with Ibrahimovic’s star power in the league. Ibrahimovic is one of a few players in the world who would move the needle in terms of notoriety. The league’s players would welcome him as well. In ESPN’s preseason survey of 140 MLS players, 22 percent identified Ibrahimovic as the player they would most like to see join the league.
The good news is that Ibrahimovic is available after Manchester United cut ties with the forward last week. But here’s where it starts to get complicated. United’s decision had nothing to do with Ibrahimovic’s form last season — he scored 28 goals in 46 appearances — but rather the torn ACL in his right knee that he sustained in a Europa League match against Anderlecht on April 20. Ibrahimovic underwent surgery on May 1 and is expected to be sidelined until January, which just so happens to be when MLS training camps open.
That has left MLS in a bit of a quandary. Numerous reports, including one in Marca, stated that Ibrahimovic was set to join the LA Galaxy. A league source confirmed to ESPN FC that MLS is indeed engaged in talks with the forward but that the nature of the discussions has been along the lines of “general talks” and that there is “a lot up in the air with [Ibrahimovic’s] injury recovery.”
A Galaxy club source told ESPN FC on Saturday that the Marca report was “not accurate” and added that the team isn’t pursuing Ibrahimovic “at the moment.” Contacted again on Tuesday, the club source said nothing had changed in terms of the Galaxy’s interest in Ibrahimovic. A league source added that expansion side Los Angeles FC is not in the running to sign Ibrahimovic, either.
Now, is there some wiggle room in those statements? Sure, and much of it hints strongly that MLS is taking a wait-and-see approach with Ibrahimovic. This is eminently sensible. Yes, Ibrahimovic is a physical wonder with incredible ability, and the protocol for recovery from an ACL injury is pretty standard now. The surgeon who performed the operation, Freddie Fu, told the South China Morning Post that Ibrahimovic “can still play for many years. He’s so healthy, so strong. Biologically, bone morphology, everything, is absolutely very healthy.”
But you’re still talking about a 35-year-old who is six weeks into a six- to nine-month rehabilitation, and it’s a process that carries potential setbacks — both major and minor — along the way. There is also the question of whether Ibrahimovic regains his former level, or how long that might take.
The tricky part is: How long does MLS wait? Ibrahimovic has been linked with any number of clubs around the world, including Russian side Zenit St Petersburg, where he would be reunited with his former club boss at Inter, Roberto Mancini. Another report stated his former club AC Milan is interested. There has also been talk of Ibrahimovic signing a short-term deal with Manchester United once his rehab is complete.
The difficulty for MLS, and any of its teams that might be interested, is that it will need strong assurances that Ibrahimovic is fully recovered, or at least likely to reach that point. Does MLS pull the trigger now, in say September, or wait until his rehab is complete, whenever that is? Granted, MLS can structure the contract so that it is protected to a degree should Ibrahimovic struggle with his health. Will other clubs around the world insist on the same, or will they be willing to gamble more?
It’s tempting to think there is little downside to signing Ibrahimovic. But if he is signed, you can bet there will be a backlash if MLS puts its marketing muscle behind the acquisition and Ibrahimovic can’t play. One only has to look at David Beckham’s first few years in MLS, when he spent considerable time either out on loan or injured, as an example of what happens when a player doesn’t deliver on his perceived promise.
Until more information on Ibrahimovic’s health emerges, the decision for MLS remains more complicated than it looks.