If you take one look at Major League Soccer as its 2018 season begins to get into full flow, you’d most likely find yourself surprised at the number of ex-Premier League players who currently ply their trade there.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be the name on the tip of everyone’s tongues following his extremely well-documented move to Los Angeles Galaxy last month – even more so after his scarcely believable two-goal heroics on debut in the LA derby – but the MLS’ Premier League link runs deeper than that.
Whether it be the likes of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard or Bastian Schweinsteiger who chanced their arm in America towards the end of their careers or someone like Bradley Wright-Phillips, making a name for himself at New York Red Bulls, the MLS is undeniably growing global interest year by year.
The latest player to be swayed by the lure of the MLS during the recent off-season is that of European football veteran Reto Ziegler, who made the switch to Texan outfit FC Dallas in January.
The 32-year-old former Switzerland international has certainly seen his fair share of the world since breaking into the Grasshopper first-team back in 2002 – across the previous 16 years Ziegler has featured for 12 different clubs across six European countries – but he insists that he’s up for the fresh challenge as FC Dallas attempt to reach their fourth Conference Finals in the past five seasons.
Speaking exclusively to The Boot Room, Ziegler said:
“It’s a nice change for me. It’s nice to play in the MLS and especially with Dallas.
“For me, the best opportunity was the MLS. Also for my family. I feel happy on the field and off the field. This is most important for me.”
Despite only being seven matches into his FC Dallas tenure it has already been an eventful time for Ziegler, seeing his new side fall to a shock two-legged defeat in the last-16 of the CONCACAF Champions League before leading from the back as Dallas sit unbeaten in the Western Conference.
“We are disappointed [to bow out of the CONCACAF]. It was one of our goals so we are a bit disappointed for that. But on the other hand in the MLS we are still unbeaten, we are really close to winning the games. It’s just a lack of concentration in front of the goalposts.”
Whilst the last-16 defeat to Panama minnows Tauro FC in the Champions League was a bitter blow before the domestic season began, there’s no denying that FC Dallas have bounced back.
Five games, no losses, and nine points – it’s a solid base to build on.
Four consecutive home matches to start the campaign brought three battling draws against Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers and Colorado Rapids, with a resounding win over 2016 MLS Cup champions and 2017 MLS Cup runners-up Seattle Sounders and the latest win over New England Revolution moving them up to fifth in the early standings, four points off the top.
It is early days of course, and there’s an awful lot of MLS football to be played out between now and when the final positions in the ladder are done and dusted later in the year, but Ziegler seems confident that this current crop of players have the ability to produce something special.
“We want to play in the front. The coach and the team, in the last year, they always play a major part of this league and in the first positions. I don’t want to be arrogant and say we want to be champions, but we have the quality to do that.
“It’s a team that plays football I really like. We keep lots of possession, we don’t play long balls, we have a good squad. I am really pleased with that.”
Having said that, the former Swiss international is by no means getting carried away with the potential that FC Dallas possess in their ranks.
With three draws coming in their opening five MLS games it’s been a case of nearly but not quite at times for the Texan outfit, and this is something Ziegler says they need to improve if they have dreams of going for glory at the end of the season.
“We need to win games.
“We didn’t score the goals but if you saw our games we create a lot of chances – but we didn’t score. We have to change and if we can change that I am sure we can beat each team here in the MLS.”
There is no denying that their finishing was more clinical away at New England this weekend though, with 22-year-old midfielder Jacori Hayes capping off an eye-catching display with a 76th-minute winner.
It was Hayes’ first goal for the club since being drafted back in early January – where he was selected in the first round – and Ziegler admitted that he has been impressed with the talent that he has come across in training from both Hayes and the other youngsters at FC Dallas.
“We have very good young players. It is not easy to get into the first-team. The step from the youth-team to the first-team is not easy.
“But we have a lot of quality in here. I think, if the team begins to win games, the coach will give the chance to these young players. You will see that we have really good quality here.
Saturday’s hard-fought victory over New England Revolution – a side that hadn’t lost in ten previous encounters at the Gillette Stadium prior to kick-off – was one that showcased everything that this current FC Dallas side is about, being well-organised and compact at the back and strong in midfield.
This foundation in defence has been the story of their season so far, and it’s been impressive.
After five games of the regular MLS season no other side can boast having a better defensive record than FC Dallas, who have conceded just three times in 450 minutes.
And this is partly down to the budding partnership that Ziegler is beginning to form with FC Dallas stalwart and US international Matthew Hedges.
The 28-year-old has made over 150 appearances for the club since making his debut six years ago, quickly making a name for himself as one of the best central defenders across the MLS.
With the MLS experience that Hedges has – being crowned MLS Defender of the Year in 2016 after a standout season – mixed with the global experience that Ziegler can bring to the table, there’s a ready-made recipe for success down at the Toyota Stadium, and this defensive partnership could be key to how the year pans out.
On a more personal level, it has been quite the career for the 32-year-old, to date.
From starting out at Swiss side Grasshopper, to stints at Tottenham and Juventus, before short-term periods spent in Turkey and Russia at Fenerbahce and Lokomotiv Moscow, respectively, and then returning back home to FC Sion in his native Switzerland, it has been anything but boring for Ziegler.
During this time it’s not just his club that has changed though, but also his position.
From being a young left-midfielder at Wigan Athletic to a rejuvenated centre-back at FC Sion, it appears that it’s taken until late in his footballing career to find out just where Ziegler truly thrives.
And – as seen in some strong performances in the heart of defence for FC Dallas already in the infancy of this MLS season – it’s in this more central role that has seen him offer his full potential.
Reflecting on his shift to the middle of the back-four, he said:
“It was not my decision, but the coach at that time with Sion needed a centre-back. I played there, got man-of-the-match and we won the Swiss Cup. When we went to the Europa League, we played Liverpool twice and we drew twice, and I played this position.
“I feel really comfortable in this position. I was awarded best centre-back in Switzerland. It was a surprise for me because when you play ten years at left-back you do not expect to change positions.
“But I have a lot of fun in this position. It’s a position where I can help my team-mates and be a leader, that’s why I was captain also back home. I enjoy myself in this position.”
And whilst Ziegler’s transition into a more central position has proved successful in recent years, he’ll face his sternest test yet when LA Galaxy and Zlatan Ibrahimovic come to town in a few weeks.
“Of course I am looking forward to playing against him [Ibrahimovic]. He is one of my favourite strikers. I played against him when he was at Inter Milan and with AC Milan.
“Now I am a centre-back – this time I really have to defend against him. I’m looking forward to that.”
With FC Dallas making a strong start to the MLS season hopes are already beginning to grow that this could be their best chance of claiming that elusive MLS Cup title for a fair few years.
After just five games of the regular season it already appears that Ziegler has made himself at home at FC Dallas, and if success is to follow in the upcoming months you can almost guarantee that the former Swiss international will play a vital role in the heart of the defence.