Pirès: Villareal, Former Arsenal Star Good On-Field Fit For Union, MLS

Being a fan of Major League Soccer means throwing a grain of salt at each rumor of incoming talent. There are a number of prominent European players who like the idea of MLS, living in the States – players who aren’t afraid to share their feelings with the media. However, the rules of our domestic league are only starting to become flexible enough to meet that demand (while the debate surrounding whether that’s a good thing continues). With the ratio of rumor to available slots beguilingly high, the talk of Henrys and Raúls tends to aggregate into white noise, with very little truth rising above the din.

One of the names that’s surprisingly moved from rumor to defined target is Villareal’s Robert Pirès. In our States, most know him as “former Arsenal man Robert Pirès” and Villareal as “that team that didn’t give Jozy a chance.” Thanks to comments from Piotr Nowak, people can now say “possible Union player Pirès” without sounding unduly speculative.

Arsène Wenger and Robert Pirès, and though I believe this picture was taken a year ago, I'm pretty sure they're discussing Pirès's prospects in Philadelphia, Major League Soccer. (Photo: Newscom)

“There have been confirmation on both sides, I will go on record with that,” Nowak said, regarding the rumors of Pirès’s arrival. “I believe that a player like Pires with a great pedigree and a great background could be a role model for these young players. But I don’t like the name designated player, I think the term is artificial. Either you are a good player or a bad player.”

Whether Nowak endorses the term or not, a designated player is what Pirès will be. The former French international will not be coming to Major League Soccer without the money afforded a DP, and given the weight of that distinction on a team’s roster, the term is more than perfunctory. Taking on a designated player is a significant commitment for any team, both in terms of finance and roster management.

Pirès is best known for his years with Arsenal when the Gunners where winning Premier League titles, running through a season without a loss. After his move to Spain four years ago, Pirès was a crucial component of Yellow Submarine teamsMiguel Pellegrini took to unprecedented (for the club) heights – a Champions League semifinal, a second place finish in the Spanish Primera Division. Since Juan Roman Riquelme left the Madrigal, Pirès’s creativity has been essential.

But Pirès is 36-years-old, and while still possessing the skill to play at a top level, his playing time has decreased after Pellegrini moved to Real Madrid. Last season, Pirès made 32 appearances in La Liga, 24 of which were starts. This season, he’s made 26 appearances, starting only 13 times.

In the last year of his contract, Pirès seems intent on moving away from Villareal. While there has been speculation he may retire, Pirès has made pains this week to get the message out: He plays on playing, creating the perfect scenario for MLS.

As much has been confirmed by his agent, Memed Djemmal.

“The league is definitely interested, there is currently a large number of teams on board and Philadelphia is one of them,” Djemmal said. “We were first contacted by the team in February, and there has been back and forth since.”

Able to play on the wing or as an attacking midfielder (or, a number ten), Pirès would be an ideal signing for any MLS club. He would immediately enter any conversation discussing the most technically gifted, creative players in the league, and although he has lost a step from his prime, he still possesses enough pace to excel in Major League Soccer.

The natural comparison here is Guillermo Barros Schelotto, not only for their age (born five months apart) but also for their styles and where they prefer to be deployed on the pitch. It goes without saying that Schelotto has been a resounding success in Major League Soccer, and although Pirès is coming over at a later point in his career, Pirès was arguably the better player in their primes. Pirès at 36 may be what Schelotto was at 33. If Pirès does not meet that standard, he only needs to come close to justify Philadelphia’s pursuit.

With Alejandro Moreno, Sébastein Le Toux, Fred, Roger Torres, and Danny Mwanga, Philadelphia has enough options to deploy around Pirès to take advantage of their target’s talents. The mix is actually a bit scary, considering this franchise has only been playing matches for a month. As if last year’s Sounders team didn’t do enough to undermine our expectations of expansion franchises, a Pirès-emboldened Union could quickly become formidable. Should Danny Califf, Shavar Thomas, Cristian Arrieta, Michael Orozco and Jordan Harvey gel, should Chris Seitz finds his bearings, Philadelphia could challenge a the third-place finish in the East.

If they can have some early, on-field sucess, Philadelphia will be able to quickly maintain many of the fans we’ve seen fill The Linc for the franchise’s start, because Robert Pirès’s acquisition alone will not capture imaginations. Some DPs – Beckham, Blanco, Ljundberg – can sell tickets, but Pirès is not one of them. Only the diehard soccer fans that will write articles about him on Major League Soccer talk are going to have their eyes light-up at Pirès’s acquisition. He won’t be the same kind of draw as countryman Thierry Henry.

But perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps its better, much better, if Philadelphia gets a winner on the pitch as soon as possible. Not that Henry wouldn’t do that, but Pirès looks to be available soon – very soon, considering he won’t be with France in South Africa.

As much as any city, Philadelphia loves a winner, and if Pirès makes the Union immediately competitive, expect Philly to show MLS some brotherly love.

Quotes from this piece were ripped from the aforelinked (my word, not yours) Philadelphia Daily News article.

9 thoughts on “Pirès: Villareal, Former Arsenal Star Good On-Field Fit For Union, MLS”

  1. I think the DP focus is misguided.

    Ljungberg being a case study. He hasn’t been terrible for the Sounders ( and at times great ), but he really hasn’t added that much considering how much more he makes.

    So how much to you pay someone that could be the next Ljungberg, if he doesn’t sell the jerseys like him ? Me ? Not that much.

    I think they are better off going for the US national team members. Big names, very good players, that the whole country will be watching on ESPN in a month.

    Keeping the next Altidore/Donovan should be every MLS teams target for DP IMHO.

    1. I agree Charles. I’d love to see Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard back in MLS. They are making a big impact over in EPL and a lot of US soccer fans know who they are and they’ll see them perform for the US this summer. That’ll help younger kids aspire to be in the major leagues too. Instead we’re getting a lot of foreign talent, like you said, who aren’t doing bad, but not doing real great either. And I agree that the focus should be to keep the next young, great American stars and not have them jump ship to Europe. Stuart Holden being an example. If we could only use a DP slot for better refs.

  2. Right now MLS is emerging as one of the top soccer products on the planet.

    Competitive balance, attractive stadiums, big cities, and world superstars. Who could want anymore?

    Perhaps the eurosnobs who will continue to bash MLS at every turn. Claiming games which have no impact on anything are exciting. Who cares about 90% of the Premier League games. Manchester or Cheslea win the title every year. No playoffs, and nothing but two dominant teams.

    Garber says MLS is going to Montreal with 19 and Miami or Atlanta for number 20. He says he wants back into Florida. Poor Krishnaiyer. If his NASL loses the Miami and Atlanta markets they will be nothing. I appreciate that USL/NASL have kept soccer in those important markets, but those are massive places and the potential for division two soccer down there is limited.

    I have agreed with him that Atlanta and Miami are huge markets that need to be in the top league. Both are in the top 5 on the World Cup bid meter for signatures and corporate support. Guess who are number one and two? Seattle and Philly, two new MLS cities!

    Heck, Miami is probably the biggest city in the world without a top division soccer team. But MLS needed to solidify in the “easier” markets and now that we are getting the biggest stars, the time to go to Atlanta and back to Miami has come. I’d add Tampa and St Louis for 22 and then stop their for about 5-7 years.

  3. As much as mls is growing, their still not a big producer in football as yet. The best players in mls or overseas, and although they may not be ds players they are coming from Argentina and many other countries from south america. But on the case with robert Pires, or bobby. I wanna see him in new york along side Thierry Henry, btw Pires was a way better player then Ljundberg but to have three of the great four of the invicibles in mls will be great. If Henry comes with Pires to New York, I can see a team that is as good as the new york cosmos being resurrected :), im excited.

    1. I completely disagree with that.

      If they are not there, they are very close.

      One, no denying the level of soccer is rising quickly. Look at the names making a big splash in MLS…all new guys. The Reems, the Oparas, etc. Not like there was some huge exodus out of MLS, they just earned spots. The last two drafts have been like that.

      Two, the attendance is on the verge of breaking out. I realize that LA and NY are underperforming of course, and some are downright pathetic ( Dallas ), but Portland draws 13-15k the year before they join, Vancouver drew 25k in the 70s and 80s.
      Seattle and Toronto can already draw average EPL team attendance numbers.

      Three, you are entitled to your opinion on aging superstars and I do think that the older players realize the opportunity to make money in the US. I think that is why Landon has stayed so far, even signing up again. Maybe that money brings them here earlier than washed up. But many, not Henry, are on the verge of not being good anymore, and so you end up with I can be great at times, but injured and just ok for a lot of money other times. ie Ljungberg.

      Plus is Pires that big a name? If I ask a typical guy at the Sounders game who he is, they will know him? Sounders don’t just draw huge “I watch all soccer” people, they are getting the average sports fan. My guess ? no.

  4. Do we really want these kind of players in MLS? A DP can be a rising European or South American star, it doesn’t have to be an old guy that no one really wants anymore. I know that MLS is against paying transfer fees but imagine if they would get players who are still good, it would make the league better and challenge the play of the new talent in the league. Get a few players on Landon’s level, maybe make some offers to teams that are being relegated in the various European leagues. That would make the play better and would bring out fans just as much as some washed up has been. Portsmouth is going to have a fire sale, the same with Hull City. What about an offer to an established American to come back as a DP?

  5. I would love to see Robert Pires play for Philadelphia. Being a big fan and follower of EPL and euro teams, I would love to see my Favorite midfielder come to US and help players devolp creativity and game play technique.

  6. The next three transfer windows are going to be exciting for the league. I think you’ll see a few DP signings after the World Cup, but not as many as projected. Maybe 3-4 guys that join in late July, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see 2-3 of those be from Latin America.

    In the winter window, I think you’ll see 2-3 European based players who have contracts expiring in July 2011 go ahead and sign with the league.

    Then in the summer of 2011, you’ll see 2-3 more signings that join in late July 2011.

    There are a lot of European based players who will be between ages 33-36 when their contracts end in 2011 (Shevchenko, Seedorf, Treziguet, Owen, Thomasson, van Nistelrooy, Henry, Ze Roberto, etc.).

    I think this is actually a good thing for the league, which is still 90% full of guys in the beginning/prime of their careers. I see nothing wrong with having long time veterans come in and teach the young guys how to be professionals. That tutelage should really help the American prospects.

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