LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole left Arsenal for Chelsea more than a decade ago, but that hasn’t erased the bitter memories of the departure from his boyhood club.
Cole was famously involved in a “tapping up” meeting with Chelsea without Arsenal’s permission in 2005, but signed a contract extension with the Gunners. Still, he was gone a year later in messy circumstances.
“The loan deal had an option to make the transfer permanent which we have now triggered as planned,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales said. “Josef has been a fantastic addition to our club and it’s clear he has the ability to continuing making an impact in our league.”
It’s a wise move for any number of reasons, the least of which being a virtuoso season at his age could net a wild transfer fee down the line.
Quick, how old were the best performers in Major League Soccer last season?
Rather than rattle off the players we think were the best, let’s use a couple advanced stats sites to double down (Squawka and WhoScored).
According to the former, the Top Ten “performance scores” were posted by Sebastian Giovinco (29), Osvaldo Alonso (30), David Villa (34), Ignacio Piatti (31), Gio dos Santos (27), Benny Feilhaber (31), Chad Marshall (32), Chris Pontius (29), Walker Zimmerman (23), and Lee Nguyen (29).
As for the latter, you’ll see a lot of the same faces at the top. Giovinco, Alonso, and Piatti remain 1-2-3, but the Top Ten is filled out by Nicolas Lodeiro (28), Sacha Kljestan (31), Michael Bradley (29), Gyasi Zardes (25), Jozy Altidore (27), and Bradley Wright-Phillips (31). Obviously, WhoScored favors the attack.
For comparison’s sake, the Premier League doesn’t boast a player in its Top Ten over the age of 30, Serie A has two (Dzeko and Fazio), La Liga four (Suarez, Ronaldo, Modric, and Luis), and the Bundesliga one (Robben). And any of those names would thrive in MLS, I imagine.
The rise in young Designated Players in Major League Soccer is no joke, which has directly led to a big mistake amongst many MLS supporters. That is the assumption that older elite players, many who would wrongly earn the league “retirement league” jeers, are going to fail.
Before taking on the idea of Schweinsteiger, it’s important to note that many MLS fans bristle so much at the retirement league gloss that they are quick to lash out when superstar imports begin slowly in MLS. I emphasize “slowly” because stardom is understandably expected given the players’ lofty standards, and poor play is really anything below that standard.
— Frank Lampard began his MLS tenure as a failure because he was hurt to start his tenure at NYCFC; The Chelsea legend got healthy and was as productive as almost any MLS attacking mid last season. In fact, look at NYC’s Top Five in per-game Squawka stats last season… pretty old.
— Steven Gerrard is considered even worse because he didn’t put up gaudy offensive numbers. It’s important to note he was still one of LA’s best all-around per-game weapons in 2016 (and that they, too, were older at the top).
That’s fine, and he may flop. Any player could flop, of course.
Let’s compare Lampard and Schweinsteiger, as far as we can. The former arrived on the shores of MLS directly in which he managed only 989 minutes in league play for Man City, and three seasons since he was counted on for 2,000-plus minutes at Chelsea.
Schweinsteiger hits Chicago having not done much at all this season at United, and a three seasons after breaking that 2,000 mark at Bayern Munich. In theory, the only difference is that Schweinsteiger will need to find fitness. On the flip side, he’s not carrying a year’s worth of battle wounds.
He’s 32, played plenty in Germany’s EURO 2016 campaign, and is three summers removed from going all but nine minutes of four elimination games in winning a World Cup. He’s two seasons removed from a 20-match, 5-goal, 4-assist season as a deep-lying midfielder in the Bundesliga.
I love MLS and Opening Weekend generally signals something special in my mind, but right now the league is about on par with Eredivisie. For a 20-year-old brand, that’s not an insult, and if Schweinsteiger joined PEC Zwolle I’d consider it a savvy move to improve a team and sell a load of uniforms.
There are definite and legitimate questions about how Chicago will fare with him sitting atop holding midfielders Juninho and Dax McCarty. But Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic have had a looooong time to sort out whether the move makes sense for their formation and plan. We’re talking last summer, well before they scooped up both of the aforementioned center mids.
Not to mention this is a one-year, $4.5 million deal that carries an incredibly minimal amount of risk. Chicago has been tabbed as a team that could surprise and make the playoffs. The question isn’t why, or can this work? It’s why wouldn’t you?
There’s plenty to cheer about with an expansion team that has already displayed a dynamic style of play, scoring 11 goals in its first three games.
It’s early, but say this: Atlanta has really embraced Major League Soccer.
“It’s like a party out there every time you take the field,” midfielder Julian Gressel said. “Even coming out for warmups, you get goosebumps on your body. It’s just a great feeling.”
While impressive on the field, winning the last two games by a combined score of 10-1, United’s best work has some in the stands.
The inaugural contest, a 2-1 loss to New York Red Bulls that United led most of the way before surrendering two late goals, attracted a sellout of 55,297 to a stadium best known as the home of Georgia Tech’s college football team.
It was larger than any crowd drawn this past season by the Yellow Jackets.
That was followed by turnout of 45,922 for Saturday’s 4-0 blowout of Chicago – another sellout, essentially, since the school closed off 10,000 seats in the upper deck for previously planned renovation work.
Not too shabby, considering United won’t even move into its permanent home, $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, until late July.
“The support has been just amazing. We’re very, very fortunate that we’ve got this atmosphere to play in front of,” defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We don’t want to take it for granted. We want to make this a real fortress and a place where teams dread to come to play.”
United is one of two new franchises that joined MLS this season, but it hardly has the look of a neophyte organization.
Not with a big-pockets owner such as Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL Falcons. Not with a well-known coach such as Gerardo “Tata” Martino, whose previous stints include Barcelona and guiding the mighty Argentina national team. Not with a roster that includes Josef Martinez, a 23-year-old Venezuelan on loan from Italian Serie A club Torino, as well as players such as Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Yamil Asad to press the attack.
Martinez already has an MLS-leading five goals, including two of the world-class variety in United’s latest victory.
Taking advantage of a Fire team that played most of the game a man down, Almiron threaded a pass between four defenders to send Martinez into the clear for his first goal in the 60th minute. Then, after another brilliant pass from Asad, the speedy forward flicked the ball away from the goalkeeper and managed to slowly curl the ball just inside the far post in the 82nd to finish off the rout.
“Josef Martinez is probably the best forward in this league,” Gressel said. “It’s not surprising to me that we can go out there and score four or five goals a game.”
After an international break, United faces a very tough stretch that will give a better indication of whether this team is a legitimate playoff contender in its very first season. Atlanta plays its next four games on the road before finally returning home April 30.
“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”
Indeed, United’s debut hasn’t been entirely smooth.
In addition to blowing a lead in the opener, some Atlanta fans came under fire for chanting an anti-gay slur . Team officials quickly apologized and vowed to toss anyone who did it again. The crowd was on its best behavior Saturday, even unveiling a banner before the game that said, “Give Racism A Red Card.”
After the match was over, a long line snaked up to a merchandise stand on the west side of Bobby Dodd Stadium, everyone standing eagerly with credit cards in hand to gobble up more United gear.
In a city starved for championships, especially after the Falcons squandered a 25-point lead and lost to New England in last month’s Super Bowl, this team has provided a quick salve.
“It’s really special,” said goalkeeper Alec Kann, a native of the Atlanta area. “Things are moving in the right direction, for sure.”
Meanwhile, the defending champions open up their home account at CenturyLink Field against the New York Red Bulls.
New York City FC vs. Montreal Impact — 2 p.m. EDT on Saturday
Patrick Vieira’s side found their offensive groove a week ago, and now its Montreal’s turn to try to tame David Villa and co. For the Impact, the Canadian team is coming off a disappointing draw against the Sounders after giving away a two-goal lead late in the match last weekend.
Atlanta United vs. Chicago Fire — 4 p.m. EDT on Saturday
Both sides are coming off of solid wins a week ago, but how good can Atlanta actually be? The newcomers put up a six spot on fellow expansion side Minnesota United, while the Fire put together a solid first-half effort at home against Real Salt Lake.
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Toronto FC — 4 p.m. EDT on Saturday
Both Canadian sides have had their share of struggles in the first two weeks, but TFC remains unbeaten. The Whitecaps fell in their Champions League first leg semifinal against Tigres, and now Carl Robinson’s side faces a TFC team that will likely be without Sebastian Giovinco.
D.C. United vs. Columbus Crew — 7 p.m. EDT on Saturday
Both teams from East haven’t played their best in the opening two weeks, particularly D.C., who allowed four against NYCFC at Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, Ben Olsen’s group hasn’t scored a goal yet either without playmaker Luciano Acosta in the attack.
Orlando City vs. Philadelphia Union — 7:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday
The Lions got some extra time off last week with the rough New England weather, while the Union scored late to pull out a point against TFC.
FC Dallas vs. New England Revolution — 8 p.m. EDT on Saturday
The Revs get back on the road against one of the league’s best while Dallas will riding in hot after picking up a 2-1 win over Pachuca in the CCL. Oscar Pareja’s side has looked among the league’s best to start the season, so the Revs will have their hands full.
Sporting KC vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 8:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday
The Earthquakes have started off hot, and Dominic Kinnear’s men will look to become the first team to score this season against Sporting KC. Meanwhile, the 2013 MLS Cup champions have had difficulty breaking down backlines through the first two weeks.
Colorado Rapids vs. Minnesota United — 9 p.m. EDT on Saturday
Minnesota has had a rough go of it since their entry into MLS, allowing a league-high 11 goals in two games.
Real Salt Lake vs. LA Galaxy — 9:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday
Both teams have battled injuries early on, especially the Galaxy who continue to play without Ashley Cole and Gyasi Zardes, and each club is searching for their first victory of 2017. The Galaxy have struggled out of the gate with Robbie Keane no longer bolstering the attack.
Portland Timbers vs. Houston Dynamo — 10:30 p.m. EDT on Saturday
In arguably the most intriguing matchup of the weekend, the two unbeatens meet at Providence Park. The Dynamo have surprised many to start the season with their potent attack, led by Erick Torres and Romell Quioto, while the Timbers may have the best front group in all of MLS after scoring six goals in the first two weeks.
Seattle Sounders vs. New York Red Bulls — 10:30 p.m. EDT on Sunday
The Red Bulls haven’t played their best, but Jesse Marsch’s side is unbeaten to start and improving week to week. The Sounders, however, have shown a bit of struggles out of the gate although Clint Dempsey‘s return has given the champions a moral boost.