Major League Soccer has come a long way since Sasa Curcic secured a move from Crystal Palace to MetroStars – on a New York dance-floor!
It was the summer of 1999 and the Serbian star was asked to prove his fitness by completing the most bizarre medical imaginable.“I couldn’t touch my toes at the time because I was out of shape. So, instead I did some belly-dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller,” recalls laughing Curcic, whose dazzling display landed him a three-year contract.
But if the Beautiful Game across the pond was a little behind the times back then, rest assured, it is not anymore.
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So when pundits and punters question the wisdom of Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale going to the States to further their respective managerial and playing careers, Curcic, despite own crazy experience, reckons they are unfair and unfounded.
Ex-England and Manchester United striker Rooney, after quitting as Derby boss, has been appointed DC United manager. That follows Bale's signing by Los Angeles FC.
Rooney immediately took a swipe at those in England quick to disrespect the quality of the MLS, while Bale, 33, suggested he could be still leading out Wales at the next Euros – let alone this year’s World Cup – thanks to his Californian dream.
Certainly Curcic, one of the first to swap the Premier League for the States, is backing both to be hits, adding: “Even in my day, it was a decent standard. I played with Lothar Matthaus and Tim Howard. It was a much better level than you’d think.
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“Ivan Gazidis, who became chief executive at Arsenal and then AC Milan, was one the MLS commissioners at that time. He was a visionary for the league.
“If some think Bale can just take it easy there, they’re wrong. The fitness levels of MLS players are really high and the games are end to end.
“If he stays healthy, Gareth could play for Wales well beyond these World Cup finals. And, as we’ve seen with my friend Patrick Vieira, now manager at my beloved Palace, it’s a good place to learn your trade as a manager.
“I feel it’s a great step for Rooney, too.”
Eagles chief Vieira cut his teeth as a coach in the Manchester City Academy before assuming the reins of the English champions’ MLS outfit New York City FC.
And, according to one leading agent involved in transfers between Europe and the States, City’s arrival on the scene had a massive impact on the development of the elite game there.
London-based Michael Di Stefano declared: “Manchester City have to be thanked. The biggest changing point in the MLS was when Sheik Mansour took over New York City.
“City, arguably the wealthiest club on the planet at the time, came to America and invested in it as part of their three-club system.
"And they got their own new franchise, no matter the cost. They need to take a lot of credit.”
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