MLS would love to shirk the label of being a retirement home for the stars. Though the label of being a “selling league” isn’t too much better when trying to rope in the casual fan. But that’s not a debate the league needs to have right now. While signing aging former colossuses (colossi?!) lowers the league’s rep in the soccer world, it is a boon to the casual fan in the States who might never have crossed the pond to see these players in their pomp. Conversely, producing more and more young players that European teams are certainly in a hurry to gobble up raises the league’s profile in soccer circles, but doesn’t do much for alluring the casual fan. Six in one…
Could this be the summer that MLS lands its biggest older star?
It is of little secret now, especially after their Champions League collapse, that Juventus would like to move on Cristiano Ronaldo. His €100 million transfer fee was splashed by Juve to win the Champions League, and they’re going the wrong way. In his first year in Turin, Juve got to the quarters. The past two years, they’ve splatted in the round-of-16, and this team is getting older. While the hiring of Andrea Pirlo may have been a blunder, the idea behind it was to remake the team in a younger, quicker fashion. The purchase of Weston McKennie is meant to serve that ethos. The featuring and breakout season of Federico Chiesa is meant to serve that. Matthijis De Ligt is meant to serve this purpose. There’s still a lot of reshaping to do.
There is nothing younger and faster about Cristiano Ronaldo. While still individually quick, his game now is distinctly plodding. He’s a central striker who doesn’t move much, waiting for service into the box or on the counter to break free. He still scores a ton, at a goal-per-game pace, but doesn’t do much else. He’s become the Cris Carter of soccer.
Juve, like most clubs, have been hit hard by the pandemic and not having fans as well as weakened other streams of cash, and likely aren’t as willing to stomach Ronaldo’s reported €30+ million salary per year. Especially as he ages. The problem for Juventus is that no other club is going to be champing at the bit to take it on either at this point in time.
Juventus reportedly wanted to move Ronaldo last summer, but in the middle of a pandemic and an abbreviated offseason wasn’t the time. This one might not be either, but they’re certainly going to try.
But where could he go? Ronaldo could simply point to his contract with one finger, turn his hand over and extend another, and continue to collect his salary and bang in the goals that don’t really get Juventus anywhere anymore, because there’s no chance that Pirlo would simply leave him out of the lineup. The headache that could cause could only be described as “interstellar.”
There’s only a shortlist of teams that would even think about Ronaldo’s salary, even if the transfer fee were reduced substantially. And you can cross a couple of them off the list immediately. Ronaldo is not going to play for Barcelona or Manchester City, due to previous allegiances. Bayern Munich don’t really splash out for continental talent, preferring their trusted system of vacuuming up whatever young, Bundesliga-based talent that doesn’t already belong to them.
So that leaves, among others, a return to Madrid or Manchester United. But both teams have reshaped themselves, or are attempting to do so, in a bid to make themselves younger and quicker. Especially United, where if there is a cohesive plan (and it’s still not clear there is) it would be a lightning fast forward line that strikes on the counter in the blink of an eye through Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, and Mason Greenwood. They could use a center forward, which Ronaldo is now, but have been connected to Erling Haaland or Jadon Sancho and others who are still on the upside of their career. Ronaldo could probably fit in for a season or two at the top, but if United are going to spend that money it’ll probably be for a longer-term solution. Then again, United are capable of just about anything.
Soccer in Spain is played at a pace that could suit Ronaldo more now, but Madrid have also been hit by the pandemic and are also trying to get younger. Then again, they keep ending up starting Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, so maybe they can just go full revival.
Which leaves PSG, but their main director of football, Neymar, would rather court Lionel Messi to town and Ronaldo and Messi aren’t going to play together. Though PSG’s fixation on the Champions League matches Ronaldo’s, so if they don’t win it this year, don’t rule this out.
Failing all those, that only leaves the usual retirement plans: the Middle East, China, or MLS. The first two can offer the absurd salary Ronaldo would require. The latter offers more exposure.
No MLS team would ever be able to come anywhere near Ronaldo’s current salary, so he’d have to take an enormous pay cut and bank on US-based endorsements and sponsors making up some of the rest (though Ronaldo doesn’t exactly hurt in that category now). If Juve are serious about cutting his transfer fee down to somewhere around $30 million, that might be in range of MLS. And unlike Qatar or China, MLS has better competition and rep and opportunities, if not the salary.
Would David Beckham’s Inter Miami want to make a splash to get on the map? LA Galaxy continuing their tradition of signing the biggest name they can? NYCFC and RBNY are part of larger global structures where a Ronaldo purchase wouldn’t really fit. And those are just about the only places you could see Ronaldo accepting to play. He’s not going to play in Denver or Utah, we can safely say.
Another aspect any MLS team would have to also take on is that Ronaldo could get subpoenaed, perhaps upon arrival, and perhaps at his introductory press conference if my dreams come true. The lawsuit against him from Kathryn Mayorga is still ongoing, and having Ronaldo on US soil would only make that more of a story. Juventus made it nearly impossible to talk to Ronaldo about it, but no MLS team would have the same luxury. That’s not a concern big enough for any MLS team considering Ronaldo while their eyeballs turn to dollar signs, but it is one.
It was probably always going to happen one day. It just might be sooner than we thought.