12 African Veterans Who Would Be Great Fits for MLS Teams
The development of Major League Soccer has been due, in no small part, to the successful integration and contributions of designated players who have come to America to be part of a new project or to sample life in a different environment.
Ever since Shaun Bartlett’s move to the USA after his impressive showing with South Africa at the 1996 Cup of Nations, African players have been key figures in this migration. Nigerian stars Michael Emenalo and Ben Iroha were other early pioneers, while more recently former-Premier League stars Kei Kamara, Olivier Tebily and Ade Akinbiyi have also spent time across the Atlantic.
This article profiles 12 Africans who may well be a perfect fit to bring status and celebrity to a league keen to increase its own profile worldwide. Many of these players would appeal to diasporic African communities within the States, while none are too “past it” that they would struggle to keep up with the intensity and the rigours of Major League Soccer.
Earlier this month, as reported by Goal, Didier Drogba played down rumours linking him with a move to Major League Soccer.
The Ivorian, writing on his official Instagram page, responded to suggestions that he would be moving to Seattle Sounders:
So many things have been said these last few days and I normally don't react to other such rumours so it's gonna be the first and last time I do it. I'm here focusing on achieving history for my team and nothing will take my eyes out of my goals! To all my red and yellow fans let's keep on winning until the end of the season.
Despite this rebuttal there will doubtless be further speculation linking the former Chelsea man with a move across the Atlantic when his contract expires on June 30.
As arguably Africa’s finest-ever striker, Cameroon forward Samuel Eto’o possesses the kind of profile and status that would make him a hugely appealing prospect to any MLS side.
His form of late might encourage Jose Mourinho to offer him a contract extension at Chelsea, but if he does decide to leave, any number of European sides may come in for him.
Dominic Fifield of the Guardian believes that Eto’o will certainly head to the MLS in the summer, following the end of his Chelsea contract. He names Ryan Nelsen’s Toronto FC as a likely destination.
Having just signed an 18-month deal with Milan, Essien might not look like a natural candidate to seal a move to America. However, considering other factors, the Ghanaian powerhouse could be a natural choice for an MLS switch.
It remains to be seen whether Essien will be a success at the San Siro. Legendary Milan midfielder Zvonimir Boban suggested, as reported by Sulia.com (via Goal), that it was a mistake to sign him, and the Bison’s ageing legs and injury record make him, at the very least, a gamble.
It is reasonable to assume that the 2014 World Cup, should he make it, will be Essien’s final foray into elite-level football. The powerhouse could easily go out on a high with the Black Stars, before heading across the Atlantic for one final chapter in an illustrious career.
I know, I know, Egyptian players don’t travel well, but hear me out.
While players like Hossam Ghaly, Mido and Mohamed Zidan will likely be remembered for their petulance and their controversy, rather than their magnificent abilities, they are not entirely indicative of the nation’s talent.
The Golden Generation of Egyptian football is full of players who boasted cool heads, impressive temperaments and excellent professionalism. Mohamed Aboutrika is just one famous example.
Wael Gomaa, like Aboutrika, has become an African icon following his incredible exploits and achievements. However, he has also had his influence limited to the Gulf—all of Gomaa’s immense honours have come with Al-Ahly or Egypt.
Is Gomaa, like Aboutrika, destined to be an Egyptian star remembered exclusively within his own nation? Someone who the rest of the world has never heard of?
Almost half a million people in the United States are of Egyptian origin and with these communities largely centred around major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Gomaa might be an invaluable marketing tool for a club seeking to tap into this considerable market.
Could Peter Odemwingie’s nomadic career end in Major League Soccer?
The striker has taken in Nigeria, Belgium, France, Russia and England, and while, for the moment at least, he seems happy to be at Stoke City, it may just be a matter of time before he looks to move again.
While some desperate Premier League strugglers may turn to the versatile Nigerian forward in the future, his stint at Cardiff seemed to indicate that his days as an effective EPL contributor may be numbered.
Having tried his hand at numerous leagues to date, Odemwingie might be tempted by a final fling in the States. Will an ambitious MLS side not shy of a bit of controversy also want to take a punt on him?
The former Real Madrid man remains one of the most critically underrated midfielders of his generation. However, the player who was once courted by Manchester United has been without a club since leaving Fulham in the summer.
After his release, he was briefly invited back into the fold, but after Martin Jol expressed concerns about the Malian’s long-term fitness record, Diarra was sent away once again.
Over six months later, the holding midfielder still hasn’t found a new club in Europe.
His track record and excellent trophy haul would surely appeal to an MLS club and, realistically, a move to one of the world’s less-competitive leagues might be Diarra’s only route back into regular first-team football.
When one of your own team-mates is forced to clarify that you are “not a clown” (according to Aly Cissokho per the Belfast Telegraph), you know things aren’t going well.
Kolo Toure isn’t a bad defender, and indeed, he has the pace, physique and technique to continue to contribute in a major European league.
It’s just that, at Liverpool, in the Premier League, things just seem to be moving a little too fast for him. West Bromwich Albion and Fulham were both gifted goals thanks to the big Ivorian, and the summer may be the perfect occasion to seek a career finale befitting one of the finest African centre-backs of his generation.
Yobo, like Kolo Toure, can realistically claim to be among the finest African centre-backs of his generation. While Yobo hasn’t accrued the honours that Toure has, he is an African Cup of Nations-winning captain and enjoyed a decade in the top flight with Everton.
He is currently enjoying a new responsibility as the man charged with protecting John Ruddy in the Norwich goal and keeping the Canaries in the top flight.
The Nigerian made a major impact in his first game since arriving on loan from Fenerbahce and brings both experience and defensive organisation to the backline. His form in Norfolk has earned him a recall to the national side, and he looks to be in a good position to earn a spot in Stephen Keshi’s World Cup squad.
However, his future after that looks fairly murky. If Fener don’t take him back, and if Norwich decide to look to tie down someone younger (Yobo turns 34 in September), then the time might be right to take his star power to the States.
While Steven Pienaar impressed in the low-key FA Cup contest with Swansea over the weekend, the South African midfielder hasn’t been at his best this season.
Kevin Mirallas has overtaken him as Everton’s key creator, assisting five goals and managing 1.6 key passes per game, compared to Pienaar’s two assists and one key pass per game. With regards to dribbling, traditionally such a devastating weapon in the South African’s arsenal, seven players in the current Blues squad have managed (on average) more successful dribbles per game this season than Pienaar.
Similarly, his average passes-per-game stats are outside the team’s top five and his pass accuracy percentage isn’t even in Everton’s top 10. Pienaar’s influence is on the wane and, approaching 32, things aren’t going to get any better.
The former Bafana Bafana captain is still a marvellously talented individual and has enough twinkle in his toes to be a major star for an MLS side seeking a little glitz and glamour.
All Stats via Whoscored.com
The Zakuani brothers have each built sturdy football careers and have each earned recognition from the land of their birth, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
26-year-old Steve is a former Arsenal youth academy prospect, a flash left-winger with excellent dribbling skills, who turns out for Portland Timbers, while Gabriel is an imposing centre-back who recently moved to Greek side Kalloni after having spent five years at Peterborough.
Due to his extensive experience in the English leagues (Zakuani has spent time with Leyton Orient, Stoke City and Fulham, while he was also captain at Posh), I have given the centre-back the “veteran” tag, although, at 27, he has his best years ahead of him.
Having seen how a move to Major League Soccer has revitalised his brother’s career, might Zakuani senior also seek to try his fortunes in America?
It’s hard to evaluate Teko Modise’s career. The diminutive South African midfielder has never left his homeland, despite having the technical ability to thrive in a European league, and has amassed nearly 60 caps for the national side but has too often flattered to deceive in major tournaments.
At Orlando Pirates he was a superstar for his magical technique, excellent shooting ability and fabled creativity, but a handful of anonymous performances at the World Cup in 2010, when the nation turned to him, affected his confidence and reputation.
Now 31, the Soweto-born star is unlikely to ever appear in Europe. In America, however, there is a fine tradition of South African players rising to the top of the domestic game; Modise may struggle to do this, but he retains the quality to be a star turn.
Having left Chinese side Dalian Aerbin on a free transfer in January, Seydou Keita reinserted himself into the subplots and stories of European football with a move to La Liga giants Valencia.
Keita snubbed Liverpool to return to Spain, according to the Telegraph, which is testament to the high standing he still enjoys among some of Europe’s major sides.
Having only signed on for six months, however, Keita will once more get the chance to pick and choose his next destination in the summer.
The former Barcelona man has the kind of profile that would appeal to MLS sides seeking a high-profile designated player, and his previous move to China shows that he is an adaptable talent keen to sample new environments and test himself in different leagues around the world.
It might be a match made in heaven.