Can Wesley Sneijder give LAFC wings?
With every possible path open in building Major League Soccer's next new club from scratch, is LAFC right to build its squad around Wesley Sneijder?
Round and White's Andrew Dowdeswell recently asked a similar question to that being posed here, his regarding John Terry. Although Andrew was discussing Aston Villa, a club 143-years-old, rather than one yet to leave its birthing canal, he also noted "a football squad can be built in infinitely interesting, varied ways."
Books are written on the subject, both literally and metaphorically. Even though each architect is free to choose his own design, there are prescribed methods. Thus, it's no surprise two clubs in vastly different competitive realities are considering the same approach.
Villa is an ancient club, filled with tradition, trying to re-establish its glorious top-flight past but equally at risk to fall further into ignominy, even to non-league football's fathomless depths. Los Angeles Football Club is an entirely new entity that bought its way to a permanently guaranteed place in MLS, atop the American football pyramid, an appropriately shallow method for Tinsel Town.
John Terry is 36. That's pretty much the 'consume before' date for defenders. Wesley Sneijder is 33, pushing it for an attacking midfielder.
Terry has spent his entire senior career (until now) with one club. He has always played with an uncompromisingly physical style. His attitude occasionally crossed the line, most notably when he hurled racial epithets at Anton Ferdinand and lost his best friend and teammate with club and country, Wayne Bridge, over a beautiful woman. In both cases, there was little in the way of apology because he was Captain John Terry. Savvy?
Sneijder is more like Will Turner. His play is elegant, his demeanour quiet and courteous. Yet, success, while it eventually came, didn't fall into his lap as it did for Terry at Chelsea. He was not untouchable. Real Madrid showed no faith in Sneijder, nor his countryman Arjen Robben. The pair were forced to establish their individual greatness at other clubs. Robben would win the Champions League with Bayern, Sneijder a famous treble at Inter. Then, like the spitting image of old Bootstrap Bill, the Dutchman chose his own path, flying off from Milan to Istanbul.
In fact, Sneijder's choice to sign with Galatasaray in 2013 should be treated as a cautionary tale by LAFC. He was sold by Inter for €7.5 million but Manchester United had allegedly offered former Nerazzurri Chairman Massimo Moratti £35 million (€39.9MM) in 2011. Even reasonably credible news outlets were reporting the United deal a fait accompli.
Four years later, Fox Sports hasn't learned its lesson. The headline in its more recent report implies Sneijder is ready to commit to the MLS debutante. The article quotes an ESPN report from 28 May. On 3 July, however, ESPN's Ben Gladwell wrote Serie A club Sampdoria had spoken with the player's agent, although it had yet to make a formal offer to Gala. Do the math and you come away concluding Sneijder has yet to decide his future.
Aston Villa had to compete with other interested parties for Terry's signature. With the ink dried, its 2017-18 squad can be built around him, if that is what the club intends. LAFC haven't made it that far with Sneijder. Given the Dutchman's ability to say no to Man United, it's possible the MLS side will never close the deal. The question, then, is whether their target is worth pursuing?
The short answer is yes. Sneijder has the requisite talent to be a team's focal point. He also has sufficient pedigree and celebrity to pique the Hollywood crowd's curiosity, a prerequisite to success for Los Angeles sporting franchises. Off the pitch, Sneijder isn't as flashy as David Beckham. Neither was Wayne Gretzky. Hockey's most accomplished star let his play on the ice do his talking, remaining quiet away from the rink. His reticence didn't prevent Kings games from suddenly competing with Kobe and Shaq's NBA Lakers as the in place for A-listers to be seen. If he signs, Sneijder can replicate Gretzky's impact with LAFC on a smaller scale.
The elephant on the pitch will be his age. As mentioned, Sneijder is 33, a ticking biological clock for attacking mids. In 2015, Steven Gerrard signed with LA Galaxy. He was 34. Only one year older than Sneijder, his time at the StubHub Center was, in the kindest terms, underwhelming.
Comparing their games is apples and oranges, however. Gerrard's playing style was predicated on running. Every athlete, let alone footballer, will tell you the legs go before the mind. Sneijder, on the other hand, is a cerebral assassin. His mind is his game. Vision and precise passing allow him to command a match's tempo without running himself ragged. The ball does the work, his teammates the running. He is the eye in the storm.
His style is better compared with NYCFC's Andrea Pirlo. Il Maestro has been as invisible in New York as Gerrard was in Los Angeles. He came to MLS at 36, though. There comes a time when the legs are so far gone, the mind can't compensate. Pirlo's experience suggests Sneijder has perhaps a year or two in which he can make an impact. Then again, David Beckham, another visionary passer and set piece magician was integral to the Galaxy winning its fourth MLS Cup in 2012, when Golden Balls was 37. With proper preparation and application, Sneijder could extend his career.
With or without Sneijder, LAFC's odds to win a league title in its first three years are long. Sneijder's abilities are the kind which make teammates better, however. Immensely better. When building a squad with the long-term in mind, most teams would go to the ends of the Earth to acquire such a player.