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.
“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.