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Ronaldinho & MLS, Does It Make Sense?

Botafogo v Atletico MG - Brazilian Cup 2013

Rebuilding, or more accurately reloading, in big-time club soccer always intrigues me. Unlike our North American sports clubs, teams aren’t restrained by salary caps or reliant on draft picks, affording them a carte blanche to spend their way out of trouble (or spend their way into a deeper mess). You only have to go back to 2011 when Bayern Munich — now considered the best (or second best) club team in the world — finished third in the Bundesliga. Manchester United won the Premier League in 2013 and followed it up with the disastrous year under David Moyes, making the coming transition year under Louis van Gaal fascinating on a number of levels.

This might not exactly fall under the auspices of “rebuilding” so to speak, but Barcelona’s ability to retool from its 2006 Champions League team to its team three years later (which many consider the best club team of all time) is remarkable, aided massively by its stellar youth team production line. The center of the 2006 team was Ronaldinho/Deco/Samuel Eto’o and eventually it morphed into the Lionel Messi/Andres Iniesta/Xavi core that won every trophy available on Planet Earth, including the 2009 Champions League. (And now it looks like that team is on its final legs, so Barcelona brought in Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakatic this summer in the combined $150 million transfer fee range.)

2006, as we know, is a long time ago. We’ve seen three World Cups played in the time since Barcelona defeated Arsenal 2-1 outside Paris to win the Champions League. For a while there in the mid-2000s, Ronaldinho’s toothy grin–which adorned magazine covers, Nike advertisements and the cover of the FIFA series–was the face of soccer.

That’s my roundabout way of leading into the news that Atletico Mineiro released the now 34-year old Ronaldinho on Monday.

Given that Ronaldinho’s name value — much like a faded professional wrestler still touring on the indy circuits — still carries marquee value, there are obviously going to be rumblings linking the Brazilian to MLS or any other soccer league where teams will still hand out large sums of money to players who might create a little buzz at the turnstiles for simply showing up and putting on their jersey. Before leaving AC Milan and returning to Brazil, there were lots of rumors about Ronaldinho coming to the league and even that was a long four years ago. Signing Ronaldinho at this stage in his career wouldn’t be David Beckham 2.0, but people in America still remember his name, or at least a YouTube clip they watched seven years ago that someone at work passed around in a chain email. The whole idea of MLS’ “designated player” system was seemingly devised as a way to sign players like Ronaldinho.

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Speaking of YouTube, here’s Ronaldinho’s latest highlights from 2014. The first touch is still there, along with the dribbling skills and accuracy on dead balls.

Of course soccer still requires a minimal amount of running around and MLS has the reputation as a “physical” league. Just plopping Ronaldinho into a random MLS team and expecting him to gel as if this was FIFA Ultimate Team and create all sorts of soccer magic is a lot easier on paper than in practice. MLS coaches, more concerned with winning than box office buzz, might be annoyed by the move, too. If an MLS team is serious about Ronaldinho it would have to ensure he’s still motivated by soccer, rather than cashing his check every two weeks.

Last year former Brazilian international Juninho Pernambucano signed on with the Red Bulls and lasted all of 13 games before moving back to Brazil, where he promptly retired after 21 games with Vasco da Gama. Juninho was also 38 years old — two years older than recent NYCFC designated player signing Frank Lampard. Even Kaka, now 32, comes with serious question marks toward his ability after signing on as expansion team Orlando City’s first designated player earlier this month.

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There’s an argument that MLS could benefit from an older Ronaldinho or Lampard, much like it did in the early days of the league when foreign veterans like Carlos Valderrama and Roberto Donadoni helped lift the level of play. It could also backfire like so many MLS imports like Lothar Matthäus or Denilson. Ronaldinho, if his brother/agent is to believed isn’t going to come cheap, either. You could also argue, too, that MLS would gain more by signing younger, unknown players with designated player money as Seattle did with Freddy Montero and watching them grow (and be sold off for potentially a profit), rather than plopping down a high fee for a player with a ready-made ability to sell replica shirts and possibly not much else.

And, really, that’s the crux of the Ronaldinho to MLS argument: ticket sales.

The one-and-only Ray Hudson thinks Ronaldinho is a no-brainer for the league, especially at Orlando City:

MLS attendance isn’t as bad as the average sports fan might think, checking it at a healthly 18,000+ per game. Sure, Ronaldinho on a short-term contract would provide a nice boost for a team. It’s not going to be the be-all, end-all, nor would it do much to lift MLS television ratings given there’s no shortage of star soccer players on television nowadays. Best case scenario? Ronaldinho scores on a free kick and it gets some traction on the SportsCenter Top 10 and social media, but it’s not likely to move the Nielsen needle.

As a drawing card? Sure Ronaldinho to MLS makes sense in the short term. For purely soccer reasons? That answer is much less clear — another unique challenge MLS continues to face during its lengthy maturation process.

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