A genius of the current era of world football has been locked in a gilded cage, and we have to try to break him out.
I’m referring to Mesut Ozil, of course. And the “we” here refers both generally to the many millions of us who watch and enjoy this game across the globe, and more specifically the MLS body politic, even if only a very small set of owners, executives and chief soccer officers are in any position to actually make something happen. The transfer windows of many leagues around the world have already slammed shut; MLS’s, however, remains open until Oct. 29, extended by more than two months due to the unusual circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
OK: So maybe it's asking for too much that someone on this side of the Atlantic lines up such a daring swoop within the next week or so. January is probably the most realistic scenario for Ozil suitors in MLS. So let's take aim.
Ozil, as you probably know, is a World Cup winner and an all-world talent, a playmaker and creative illuminator of the highest order at his peak, albeit fallen on hard times of late. The German star hasn’t played so much as a minute of competitive soccer since March, frozen out by Mikel Arteta as the Spaniard consolidates his plan and position at Arsenal despite making the highest salary (£350,000 per week) in the long history of the proud London club.
The fallout has already featured some amazing episodes, like Ozil’s gloriously petty trolling of his own club by publicly pledging to pay the salary of Jerry Quy, the guy who’s inhabited the “Gunnersaurus” mascot for 27 years, after he was laid off in a bout of COVID-related cost-cutting. It reached a new level of antagonism this week with the revelation that Ozil has been left off the Gunners’ Premier League and Europa League rosters, meaning that he can’t even suit up for a first-team match until the new year, at the earliest.
Up to this point Ozil, who just turned 32, has reportedly declined Arsenal’s invitations to seek out a new home, preferring to fight for his place (and continue to draw his astronomical salary) in North London. This week’s slap in the face confirms that U-23 reserve league action is the most strenuous competition he’ll have to look forward to for months, possibly all the way to the end of his current contract next summer.
He's a mercurial personality; maybe the man who made umlauts a global sensation is more consumed by anger directed at his current employers than eagerness to get off the sidelines and play the game he loves. If so, I wish him all the best with that even as I mourn the prospect of a year of his career flushed down the toilet.
If he's truly hungry to play, though, someone in MLS needs to get cracking on a scheme to bring his talents to North America. Ozil has dropped enough breadcrumbs to make clear that he's intrigued by this league. He's a big basketball fan, has vacationed here repeatedly over the years and has a maverick's offbeat sensibilities, so the right club (with a coach suited to handling all that comes with this) making the right pitch could surely tempt him with the prospect of MLS stardom.
His cult of personality is not quite at Zlatan Ibrahimovic levels, but it's not too far off, with legions of fans here ready to provide the sort of appreciation that he's so obviously lacking in his current setting. While his work rate may have been a topic of debate in England, Ozil's level of vision and technique is a rare commodity. It's not hard to envision him becoming a Carlos Valderrama-type figure here.
Arsenal clearly already rate him a sunk cost, and are surely keen to get him as far away from Arteta’s renewal project as possible. Even at that, it’s going to take a Designated Player slot and large stacks of currency just to enter into the financial stratosphere in which a deal like this is brokered. A quick perusal suggests that a few MLS clubs could make a play here if they were motivated, while others could probably move some things around to do so.
At the top of the list should probably go the Colorado Rapids, a sibling club of Arsenal’s in that they share an owner (Stan Kroenke) and have quietly shared resources in the areas of data, scouting and the like. And the Mile High Club could use a lift right now, given that they’ve been out of action for weeks due to a wave of COVID-19 cases.
The Rapids, along with D.C. United – who were connected to Ozil last year, but mostly because he’s involved with a coffeehouse looking to set up shop at Audi Field – Houston Dynamo, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, San Jose Earthquakes and Vancouver Whitecaps, currently have room for another DP on their roster. I don't really have to tell you which needs to try something dramatic given their place in the standings.
Two others in that category who might want to give this a longer look: the Montreal Impact and New York City FC. Both have ownership with the resources to spend when in the mood. Both have looked short on inspiration at key moments this season, even if they’re hovering above the Eastern Conference’s playoff line at present. Both can look back fondly on torrid affairs with A-listers like Didier Drogba, David Villa and Andrea Pirlo. And both reside in cosmopolitan metropolises with plenty enough for a worldly character like Ozil to explore.
Or perhaps the usual suspects like Atlanta, Seattle and the Los Angeles clubs will have their ducks in a row by January. Nicolas Lodeiro is reportedly drawing interest from Saudi Arabia. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is being linked to Chivas Guadalajara as he struggles at LA Galaxy. LAFC could receive the right offer for Diego Rossi or Brian Rodriguez, or Atlanta United for Ezequiel Barco, at any point.
Granted, I’m shooting from the hip a bit here. Getting deals done in the COVID climate has generally gotten tougher across the board and even a 50% pay cut from his current wages would still make Ozil the highest-paid player in MLS history. But who dares wins, and there’s an opening, however small, to exploit here. Let’s will this one into existence.