Former Orlando City star Nani has told ESPN that Major League Soccer has the potential to be a “very strong” competition that, one day, can even serve as an alternative to Europe for players in their prime.
A former Champions League winner with Manchester United and European Championship winner with Portugal, Nani signed a three-year designated player contract with Orlando prior to the 2019 season and went on to score 31 goals in 88 appearances across all competitions with the franchise.
He also captained Orlando in their first-ever playoff appearance, a penalty shootout win over New York City FC in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.
The 35-year-old departed for then-Serie A side Venezia following the conclusion of his contract during Europe’s January transfer window but was unable to help the side avoid relegation at the campaign’s conclusion.
The signing of marquee stars over the age of 30 has been and remains a notable part of the American top-flight — Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini’s arrival at LAFC recent examples — and the five highest salaries in the league all belong to players on the wrong side of 30.
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But with the reported average attendance above 20,000 this season, 28-year-old Italian international Federico Bernardeschi leaving Juventus to sign with Toronto FC, and MLS teams increasingly reaping transfer fees from European clubs, there are signs of a shift.
And speaking to ESPN, Nani said that there existed the potential for the league to grow as a potential destination for players that would have otherwise only considered Europe.
“There is a lot of work to be done, still,” he told ESPN. “But you can see in the last couple of years they have improved a lot. That’s why a lot of players from Europe are changing their minds and coming early to the MLS.
“They have a lot of good conditions. Good stadiums, good facilities. So they are changing minds about that sport.
“They are investing a lot for the next couple of years. I think in the future, yes, there is the possibility to be very strong in football.”
Nani, however, believes that the league needs to ensure that there is a level of balance to its dealings in the international market as more and more players become available.
The former Manchester United star hopes to see his former teammate for club and country remain at Old Trafford after the Red Devils’ promising summer.
“Getting more players in all the positions,” he said. “Defenders, goalkeepers. Not just buying strikers and midfielders. They need to have players in every position.
“But I think now the level is very good and you can see that work has been done in the last couple of years.”
Nani has since signed with A-League Men powers Melbourne Victory on a two-year contract, part of the Australian competition’s own strategy of luring high-profile players to the league in an attempt to generate publicity and fan interest — a similar, albeit significantly less advanced, approach to the one taken by the MLS.
He has quickly become one of the faces of the league’s coming season, which for Victory will commence against rivals Sydney FC in a “Big Blue” matchup on Oct. 8.
“I’ve been working hard to adapt to the new city, new country and time difference,” he said. “[The time difference is] big. That was the most difficult part. But now I think that’s all OK, I feel very good.
“The players, the team, they’ve received me very and helped me settle down very quickly and feel confident around the team and the club. I’m excited about what comes next.”