Zlatan Ibrahimovic captivated the Major League Soccer world for two seasons. From his headline-grabbing quotes to his sometimes questionable actions, the Swedish footballer certainly made North American soccer more fun for fans and media members alike.
Ibrahimovic also made his presence known on the field, helping the L.A. Galaxy to a playoff berth in 2019 after the team missed out the two previous years.
But Ibrahimovic’s departure to AC Milan after last season left a gaping hole in MLS from a casual-fan standpoint. Not only was he an elite soccer player, but his antics greatly contributed to the popularity of MLS all over the country. Case in point: He had the best-selling jersey in MLS for the past two seasons.
Enter stage right: Javier “Chicharito" Hernández, the Guadalajara native signed by the Galaxy to replace Ibrahimovic at the striker position. The Mexican national team staple brings with him more than 200 career goals for club and country and experience in the last three FIFA World Cups.
But Hernández doesn’t only lift the profile of the Galaxy, who also lost goal-scoring talents Uriel Antuna and Romain Alessandrini. He also adds to the profile of MLS becoming a place where top-flight players are either using the league as a stepping stone or a place to finish out the last years of their primes.
“Five or 10 years ago, Chicharito would've come back to Chivas at age 31,” MLS analyst Matthew Doyle told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Now instead he comes to the Galaxy. This is progress.”
Hernández joins a litany of elite footballers who currently play or have played in the MLS, including Ibrahimovic, former Galaxy star David Beckham, former D.C. United forward Wayne Rooney and LAFC forward Carlos Vela. And while the aforementioned players brought significant interest to MLS from other parts of the world, Hernández could be someone that surpasses them in that aspect.
RSL AT ORLANDO
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Hernández’s resume overseas with teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid and West Ham United boosts his standing among the garden variety MLS player. But it’s his time with the Mexican national team that could mean more. Hernández is all-time leading scorer for Mexico.
Why does that matter? Liga MX is still the most-watched soccer league in the United States, and Hernández’s Mexican heritage will likely boost interest in him and the league all across the country.
MLS has taken clear steps to compete with Liga MX in various ways. It started the Leagues Cup last season, which pits MLS and Liga MX teams against each other during the MLS season. And the 2020 MLS All-Star game will feature the best players from both MLS and Liga MX.
The arrival of Hernández will even impact communities like Salt Lake City, which has a rising Hispanic population and plenty of fans of Mexican soccer. In the Leagues Cup game against Tigres UANL last year, the majority of the crowd tilted toward the Liga MX team. Mexican supporters are sure to show up in force when the Galaxy visit RSL on May 23.
While his off-the-field impact is palpable, it will be what Hernández does on the field that will determine his MLS legacy.
“The impact he’s going to have on this community is significant,” Galaxy president Chris Klein told the Los Angeles Times. “To realize that potential, he has to be very good on the field.”
Hernández will get plenty of opportunity to prove himself, even if he has to share some spotlight with the likes of reigning MLS MVP Vela or Atlanta United scoring machine Josef Martinez. He has teams like RSL wondering the best way to compete with stacked teams.
"That's why we have to be an unreal team,” RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said during an ESPN 700 interview in January. “We have to be a team in the most sense of the world possible. We have to be a very good team. If we're a really good team, we can beat the teams with stars.”
Hernández has already taken the soccer work by storm, and he hasn’t even played a game yet. And he has some lofty goals of his own.
“I think this team is capable to go the highest we can imagine,” he told the website Corner of the Galaxy. “I think we can get to the [MLS] championship.
In predicted order of finish:
1. Toronto FC
The runners up for 2019 MLS Cup title could get back to the final again in 2020. Toronto is still that good, still that experienced. They still have Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore. And they brought in Pablo Piatti from La Liga who, if healthy, can be a very good MLS player.
2. New York City FC
This was the best team in the East last year after it accumulated the second-most points in MLS. But, the team has a new coach in Ronny Deila. And even though the roster is largely intact compared to a year ago, there will likely be an adjustment period.
3. Atlanta United
Although it didn’t win another MLS Cup, Atlanta did take home the championships for the U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup last year. Despite losing several key pieces to those championships, the club still has striker Josef Martinez and veteran goalkeeper Brad Guzan. The big question: Are those departures too much to overcome?
4. Philadelphia Union
The Union were one of the strongest teams in the East last season, the best in club history. They secured Jamiro Monteiro in the offseason, which may have been their most important move. Some other veterans have left, but Philadelphia replaced them with promising youth. Can they make the leap?
5. New England Revolution
Coach Bruce Arena will get a full season to show more of what he did in the second half of 2019. The Revolution brought back every impactful player from last season, and added a forward as a designated player. The goal for New England is another playoff berth after finishing seventh last year.
6. Columbus Crew
Darlington Nagbe is in at midfielder and the Crew will get some players back from injury. That alone will put them in much better position than last year, when they finished 10th in the East. In all, Columbus has depth at every position, and a formidable style of play. On paper, the playoffs look almost certain.
7. DC United
After getting Edison Flores for a record transfer fee and trading for former Atlanta player Julian Gressel, DC looked primed for a big 2020 season. An ACL tear to midfielder Paul Arriola changed some of that. But they still have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the East.
8. Montreal Impact
Thierry Henry is the new head coach for the Impact, who lost Ignacio Piatti in the offseason. The biggest question, though, will be the defense. Montreal was one of only three teams that conceded at least 60 goals in 2019.
9. Orlando City SC
With a new coach and five wins in six preseason games, things are looking up for Orlando — at least for the immediate future. But the club has yet to make the playoffs in five years of MLS existence. To change that, coach Oscar Pareja will have to change the culture there as he’s done in his other stops.
10. New York Red Bulls
Then there’s the other New York team. The club made no significant changes to its roster in the offseason and lost club legends Luis Robles, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kemar Lawrence. It doesn’t look like the Red Bulls will be doing much of anything once the games start.
11. Chicago Fire
There aren’t many expectations for the Fire this season. The have a new owner, a new stadium (Soldier Field) and a new coaching staff. While they just missed the playoffs in 2019, they’re quite weak at important positions. The Fire could be one of the worst teams in MLS in 2020 (non-expansion division).
12. FC Cincinnati
Last year was all kinds of rough for what was then the newest expansion team to arrive in MLS. With 22 losses in 2019, Cincinnati was a team with many players of USL caliber. But the organization added some veterans to the squad, and that should help them have a better second season.
13. Inter Miami
Expectations are high for Miami, one of two expansion teams in 2020. Coach Diego Alonso has won two CONCACAF Champions League titles, and sporting director Paul McDonough once helped Atlanta become the powerhouse it is now in a short order. The roster of MLS veterans and South American talent will look to duplicate that success.
Easily the best team in MLS during the regular season in 2019, LAFC will look to achieve more than just the Supporter’s Shield in 2020. They’ve been bounced out of the playoffs early for two straight years when many thought they could run away with the MLS Cup trophy. Year 3 could be the charm.
2. Seattle Sounders
The reigning MLS Cup champions are in good position for another deep run in the playoffs. But will having to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League to start the season derail them? It’s happened to other contenders in the recent past. The Sounders surely hope it doesn’t happen to them.
3. L.A. Galaxy
Chicharito will be the talk of the town — and all of MLS — for as long as he’s in Los Angeles. Some MLS analysts think the Galaxy will actually be better without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But they’ll need contributions from Cristian Pavon, Jonathan dos Santos and others to hang with the LAFCs of the world and make a deep playoff run.
4. Portland Timbers
Diego Valeri is back, and the team brought in two new strikers. Yimmi Chara’s one-on-one talents will certainly be a fixture. Last season the Timbers got knocked off by RSL in the postseason. This is a postseason team, but its ceiling is wait-and-see.
5. FC Dallas
After bowing out in last season’s playoffs in electrifying fashion (a thrilling loss to Seattle), there’s nowhere for Dallas to go but up. Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira are young and uber-talented. The club is getting Liga MX’s Franco Jara, who was a prolific scorer in that league. With most of 2019’s team returning, Dallas will be a force.
6. Real Salt Lake
A late surge last season helped RSL get to its highest finish in the last few years. But there’s collective anticipation to get past the conference semifinals, where the team’s season has ended the last two seasons. Roster turnover, a new front office and a new head coach could make that goal an uphill climb.
7. Colorado Rapids
The Rapids missed the 2019 playoffs by just two wins despite winning five of their last seven games. Coach Robin Fraser will have a full season to improve his team, which made some significant upgrades to its roster. A postseason berth in 2020 could be in the cards for Colorado.
8. Houston Dynamo
The biggest acquisition the Dynamo made was at coach. Former U.S. Men’s National Team coach Tab Ramos is now in the fold and tasked with turning around a Houston team that has missed the playoffs five of the last six years. Getting Darwin Quintero from Minnesota should help.
9. Minnesota United
After finishing fourth last season, Minnesota lost attackers Darwin Quintero, Angelo Rodriguez and Abu Danladi. United also lost Vito Mannone, the league’s goalkeeper of the year in 2019. The team’s main defenders are back and there are new attackers. But creating chances will be Minnesota’s main challenge.
10. San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes had the playoffs in their sights last year before losing six straight games. But their team hasn’t experienced much turnover with the roster and Matias Almeyda will be in his second year as coach. So all signs point to continuity helping San Jose make another push to the postseason — being successful this time around.
11. Sporting Kansas City
SKC was quite bad all last season due to CONCACAF fatigue and an overall lack of scoring. They just never got over a rough start to their 2019 season. But after bringing in some new players — namely forward Alan Pulido from Chivas Guadalajara — they’re projected to be a playoff team once again.
12. Vancouver Whitecaps
The Whitecaps were the worst team in the West last season in coach Marc Dos Santos’ first year at the helm. But the roster has changed significantly, particularly by adding Canadian striker Lucas Cavallini. That could be enough for an uptick in the standings, but likely not by much.
13. Nashville SC
The other expansion team this season, Nashville, like Miami, will look not to be a repeat of what Cincinnati was last season. The club got defender Walker Zimmerman from LAFC as well as other solid MLS vets to help make it stubborn on that side of the field.