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Rooney, Fabregas And The Case for North American Football

Once considered locks for any Starting XI in their heyday, Manchester United’s long-tenured captain Wayne Rooney and Chelsea’s string-pulling midfielder Cesc Fabregas seem to be surplus to requirements for their respective clubs at the moment.

The 31-year old has seen his role drastically change over the last few seasons. With passing years — and nagging injuries — Rooney has gradually been deployed deeper and deeper down the pitch. Once a world-beating, energetic forward with the technical skill to play anywhere in the attack, Rooney has now become a bit limited as to where he can be inserted under Jose Mourinho. He’s moved from a true number nine role up the pitch, to a playmaking ten and most recently a sporadically utilized deep-lying midfielder.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s arrivals to Old Trafford this summer were clear indications of Rooney’s diminishing role. Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are all supported by young legs and provide more flexibility in the attack for Mourinho. Juan Mata, who was nearly offloaded this summer, creates timely chances for the Red Devils, whether he starts or is summoned from the bench. Playing in front of the defense does not suite him all that well either. Besides, Mourinho prefers others like Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini in front of the defense. Then there’s the world’s most expensive footballer named Paul Pogba who’s at the heart of the project and will undoubtedly be accommodated so the club may maximize their return on the investement.

Mourinho has handed Rooney his share of minutes this year, and the numbers on paper are still perhaps indicative of a starter, but when you look at Manchester United’s inconsistencies each week — and see how they struggle in performing to expectations — something has got to give. And that may be Wayne Rooney who continues to be linked with a move away.

Heading South, there is the situation in London where Cesc Fabregas’ ill-defined role within the Chelsea side has him searching for answers of his own.

An undisputed world-class passer with exceptional vision, the former Gunner never imagined having to peek over his shoulder in fear that his job would be in jeopardy; a starting spot was a mere formality under Jose Mourinho. That is, however, until Antonio Conte arrived at Stamford Bridge this past summer.

After stumbling a bit out of the gate, Chelsea currently ride a five-match win streak in the Premier League, and Conte has shown commitment to the 3-4-3 setup which has yielded positive results. (16 goals scored, zero conceded during the stretch). The Italian’s three-man defence is flanked by hard-working wingbacks Marcos Alonso and the reborn Victor Moses; anchored in the midfield by defensive-duo Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante.

The minutes for Fabregas are in short supply and based on the club’s surge under Conte, it’s inconceievable to believe it will change.

Last month, sources told ESPN FC that Jose Mourinho would be willing to sever ties with Rooney, offload him in an attempt to overhaul the squad. Conversely, Cesc Fabregas has been linked numerous times with Serie A elitists A.C. Milan and Juventus, though it seems as if both clubs are exploring cheaper options in January.

It’s understood that Rooney and Fabregas do in fact have plenty to offer any club willing to bring them on, but only a handful of clubs could afford to match what they make under their current contract. So, what other options do they have? Often labeled the “retirement league” by fans of the European game,  North America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) could be the ideal destination for the star men.

For players of their caliber, it’s fair to assume that Rooney and Fabregas would only fancy big market like Los Angeles or New York.

The allure of Hollywood and The Big Apple needs no introduction. Los Angeles was the home on the West Coast for fellow countrymen David Beckham and Steven Gerrard, and is considered a top destination for any player looking to move over from Europe, while New York — the often undisputed capital of the world — has been the home of several major footballing stars over the last ten years.

Thierry Henry settled down in Harrison, New Jersey in 2010 when he joined the New York Red Bulls. David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo all joined their rival across the Hudson River in the Bronx, New York City FC, last season. Heading north, you have their neighbors based in Canada who have a few clubs employing stars like Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact) and Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC).

With the exception of Giovinco — who admittedly isn’t on the same wavelength as the others in terms of European success — all were in the latter stages of their playing career. They had either won everything humanely possible in Europe or sought a sanctuary in a league that is expanding. There are, however, several aspects of Major League Soccer that attract stars, albeit at an older age.

Soccer, the term commonly used in North America, lags behind in popularity to the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL. This doesn’t necessarily mean that those residing on the land do not find entertainment in their brand of the game. They just enjoy it at a significantly less rate.

Most leagues across Europe age back all the way to the late 1800s. MLS — established in 1993 — is still in the infancy stage of his existence. Yet, while the product on the pitch still lacks in comparison to its counterparts, there are some encouraging indicators illustrating the league itself is becoming a more appealing attraction.

Last month, ESPN revealed some eye-opening attendance statistics for 2016, telling signs that North America’s league is beginning to grow on fans.

Average league attendance in 2016:

Bundesliga: 41,968
La Liga: 38,076
Premier League: 35,516
Liga MX: 26,794
Chinese SL: 24,255
MLS: 21,692
Serie A: 21,069

Based off these numbers, Major League Soccer is seeing a significant increase in the way the continent observes the product. Stars demand an audience at least somewhat like those in Europe. The more seats filled, the better.

It goes without saying that Major League Soccer pays its exports handsomely and far more than it’s average professional. Extracted directly from Major League Soccer’s Players Union public report, here are the base salaries of the league’s most prominent players:

Kaká [Orlando City SC, $6,660,000], Steven Gerrard [formerly of Los Angeles Galaxy, $6,000,000], Frank Lampard [formerly of New York City FC, $6,000,000], David Villa [New York City FC, $5,610,000], Andrea Pirlo [New York City FC, $5,600,000], Sebastian Giovinco [Toronto FC, $5,600,000], Didier Drogba [Montreal Impact, $1,666, 667].

All have earned a hefty amount while plying their trade over in Europe, but it goes to show you that Major League Soccer clubs aren’t shy in paying the freight. Obviously, clubs who wish to add these types of players must adhere to the often confusing Designated Player Rule, implemented back in 2007 when David Beckham arrived over from Real Madrid. A conversation for another day.

Last month, sources told ESPN FC that Mourinho would be willing to cut ties with Rooney in order to overhaul the squad. Conversely, Cesc Fabregas has been linked numerous times with Serie A elitists A.C. Milan and Juventus, though it seems as if both clubs are exploring cheaper options in January.

Rooney, who reportedly rejected a move to Chinese club Beijing Guoan with a wage that would have fallen short his current £350k-a-week wage, does seem to have less appeal than Fabregas. He started his club career at Goodison Park with Everton before moving to United in 2004, and The Toffees could possibly offer him a stay in England as manager Ronald Koeman told the Guardian he’d be “very pleased” to have a player like Rooney at the club. Yet, it’s unclear at the moment if Rooney would consider such a move.

As for the Spaniard, Antonio Conte has insisted he does have a role in his Chelsea side, but that could be smoke and mirrors; a defense mechanism of words to salvage his transfer value. Conte’s current shape appears to be bulletproof as they continue to collect clean-sheets, but it’s likely he’d wish to make some moves come January for players who fit his scheme. Altogether, the World Cup winning playmaker has featured in just four Premier League matches and has notched under 90 minutes worth of action. Not to mention Fabregas is a player who has quite a bit of miles on him since he began playing professional for Arsenal as a sixteen year old.

Conte desires a group that rivals his intensity from the sidelines, and that’s exactly what he’s got without the La Roja star.

While Major League Soccer leaves much to be desired in terms of popularity, quality and notoriety, it’s more intriguing for an modern day footballer than you think. Along with pay, it provides aging stars with the platform to explore new challenges and seek opportunities in aiding the expansion of the North American game. Whether or not it’s time for Wayne Rooney (31) and Cesc Fabregas (29) — both shortlisted targets for 2018 by Los Angeles Football Club — to make this career choice remains to be seen. Perhaps they will stay on with their respective clubs and re-examine the idea this summer when it would be a bit easier to make a move of this importance, but it’s a decision both will definitely consider as their options become limited.

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