The soccer world lost one of it's most influential figures this past weekend with the passing of Johan Cruyff. The three time Ballon d'Or winner was one of the figureheads of the free-flowing Dutch Total Football movement and was a big influence on how teams like Barcelona play today. I thought that a cool way to honor him would be to make this week's Gold Rush about a player that has done well in trying to honor his legacy while wearing the bright orange of the Netherlands: Wesley Sneijder.
Wesley Sneijder began his playing career at De Toekomst, the famed youth academy of powerhouse Dutch club side AFC Ajax. This academy has produced the likes of Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Rafael van der Vaart, and the aforementioned Cruyff just to name a few. Sneijder would make his full debut with the Ajax first team in 2002 at the age of 18, and would stay there for five years. In his time there, he would score 43 goals in 126 appearances and the big clubs from around the world started to take notice.
In the summer of 2007, Sneijder would join Spanish giants Real Madrid, alongside Dutch compatriots Royston Drenthe (remember him Everton fans?) and Arjen Robben. Both Sneijder and Robben would have excellent first seasons in Madrid, but the reelection of Florentino Pérez as club president and the arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká made room in the midfield scarce and the two Dutchmen were seen as surplus to requirements. Robben would move on to bigger and better things at Bayern Munich, as would Sneijder at Inter Milan.
In his first season in the Italian fashion capital, Sneijder would help lead Inter to a three trophy haul, winning the Serie A, Coppa Italia, and Champions League titles. Unfortunately though, Sneijder would fall out of favor over the next few seasons and would join Turkish superpower Galatasaray in January of 2013, where he has seen a career resurgence. In his time in Istanbul, Sneijder has scored 30 goals in 92 appearances and has helped lead the way to two Turkish Süper Lig titles.
In terms of his play at the international level for the Netherlands, Sneijder really made his mark at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, leading the Oranje to the final against Spain and winning the Silver Ball as the second best player in the tournament, racking up five goals and one assist. He would have won the Golden Ball, if not for the ridiculously good play of Uruguay's Diego Forlan in that tournament.
Here's a pro: Wesley Sneijder would be one of the best DP signings in MLS history for a number of reasons. First, he would only be 32 if he were signed by Atlanta United for the inaugural season. He has shown during his time in Turkey that he can still score goals pretty consistently, and still looks to have plenty in the tank. Just last year, he scored 10 league goals in 29 appearances, and so far this season, he has five goals and six assists in 20 league appearances. This isn't a Steven Gerrard or Andrea Pirlo signing that is just coming over for the paycheck and the vacation. This is a guy that can still go at a very high level. He is one of the best free kick specialists in the world currently, he is similar to Sebastian Giovinco in both stature and on the ball ability (although he lacks Giovinco's pace), and he is very strong with both feet and can drill shots from distance with the right or the left.
The second reason that Sneijder would be a major coup for MLS (and more importantly Atlanta United) is his experience playing at the highest level. He has played in a World Cup Final, won the Champions League, and has many years of experience in top leagues. While Giovinco is a fantastic player, his résumé pales in comparison to the Dutchman's. Anyway, the point of that was to say that Sneijder would bring invaluable experience to Atlanta United because he's played in big matches and he's been a big reason why his teams succeeded. It isn't just big game experience that's important, however. His overall experience is just as critical. A player like Sneijder is a very good thing to have when bringing along young strikers. His best position is when he can be that attacking center midfielder that sits in behind the striker(s). Playing this position, he can help mentor young attackers, show them proper positioning, and help them develop. Club President Darren Eales recently told an Atlanta radio station that the spine of the team at the top end of the pitch is where they're most likely to spend big dollars. Well, it wouldn't come cheap, but Sneijder would definitely be a good place to start regarding that philosophy.
Speaking of wouldn't come cheap, the third reason I think Atlanta United should make a run at Wesley Sneijder is money. This past October, Sneijder signed a new contract with Galatasaray through the end of the 2017-2018 season. To some, this might seem like a reason to not go after a player, but this is soccer. A new contract could mean many different things. Maybe a player takes a little less salary in order to lower a release clause (which I'm hoping is the case here). With his previous contract, Sneijder's buyout was €20 million which, according to the conversion rate at the time of this writing, is a hair over $22.6 million. With the new contract, I would say it's pretty safe to say that that figure was dropped a good bit. The main financial benefit to signing Sneijder would be salary. With his new contract, Sneijder will make €3.2 million which, thanks again to today's conversion rate, is a little over $3.6 million. In MLS, 10 players made more than that last season, including Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard who a) aren't as good as Sneijder and b) are a good bit older (Gerrard by 4 years and Lampard by 6!). Also the U.S. contingent of Bradley, Dempsey, and Altidore who, well, I don't have to tell you that they aren't on Sneijder's level. Would Sneijder's salary increase in MLS? Most likely, but if it's in the range of those players, it would be worth every penny.
The biggest con with Wesley Sneijder is how much he would cost. Going back to the last section, there's no way it would be a good idea to come anywhere close to paying a €20 million transfer fee. Michael Bradley's transfer fee from Roma to Toronto was about $10 million. Would Wesley Sneijder be worth that? Well, he's a little bit older than Bradley, but also two times the player. Have his play and skill diminished with age? Sure, but that's pretty common place. We've seen what he can do against a step down in competition when he moved from Italy to Turkey. I don't know enough about the Süper Lig to compare it to MLS in terms of level of competition, but there are a few teams over there that spend big and it is a very respected league.
Another con with Sneijder is that he has been known, at times, to be a hot head. Being as small as he is, he kind of has that bulldog mentality of the bark being worse than the bite. Just like in any league, MLS doesn't put up with too many shenanigans towards officials, so that would be something he would have to watch out for. I remember watching the Milan Derby back in 2010 and Sneijder got sent off with a straight red for a very cynical challenge. That's never good, but it especially isn't when playing in your biggest rivalry game.
With Wesley Sneijder, the pros far outweigh the cons IF Atlanta United could get him for the right price. If MLS really does want to take that next step as a league, then these are the types of players they need to be targeting. A player with invaluable experience, tremendous skill, and at 31, still with plenty left in the tank? Sign me up, but more importantly sign him up...Hup Holland Hup!!