In his career swan song, can Luis Suárez flourish in MLS after stellar season in Brazil?

Major League Soccer has gained more than just a new big-name player with the acquisition of Luis Suárez. Inter Miami’s Uruguayan striker also serves as a measuring rod, a crude but interesting way to judge the strength of the league. Welcome to the “Luis Suárez test”: one MLS can hardly lose.

If the 37-year-old shines, then fans in the United States and Canada get to enjoy the final playing years of one of the best strikers of the 21st century. But if he struggles, then flattering conclusions can be drawn about the strength of MLS, especially in comparison to Brazil, which is far and away the strongest championship in South America.

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The Suárez who left European football in the middle of 2022 clearly looked to be a player in decline, hardly surprising given his age and his knee problems. In statistical terms, that second and final season with Atlético Madrid was the worst he had ever had in Europe. He briefly went back to Uruguay, specifically to prepare himself for the World Cup, but Qatar proved to be a sad farewell to the tournament.

He played an undistinguished hour against South Korea and was restricted to 20 minutes off the bench in the defeat against Portugal. He raised his game for a mighty effort against Ghana, in what was Uruguay’s last game in the competition, but even then was substituted with 30 minutes still to go.

Since then, his only appearance for his country came in the closing minutes of last November’s 3-0 home win over Bolívia. His place in Marcelo Bielsa’s squad appears as much down to his role as a mentor to new centre-forward Darwin Núñez as for anything he is likely to do on the pitch.

Is Suárez, then, a spent force? Some saw it that way at the start of last year when he moved to Brazil to join Grêmio.

Paulo Vinícius Coelho, one of Brazil’s most respected analysts, saw the signing of Suárez as “great from the marketing point of view, doubtful from the technical point of view, and bad from the point of view of a country that sells its promises at the age of 16 and buys big names at 35.”

A year on, Coelho has no problems admitting that, from the technical point of view, he got it wrong. By popular acclaim, Suárez was chosen as the best player in the Brazilian Serie A. He was the spearhead of a side that had just returned from a season in the second division and that, with better defensive organisation, could have won the title.

The Uruguayan was a joy to watch. Both technically and mentally, he appeared to be operating on a different plane from many of the other players, consistently identifying and attacking the vulnerable space in the opponent’s defence. What also stood out was the force of his approach to the game. Every match, wherever it was played and whatever the circumstances, was, for Suárez, an opportunity to state his worth as a player. It was inspiring to see someone with his CV going about his business as if he still had everything to prove.

But, it came at a cost. He was clearly struggling with his knee and was often seen limping in obvious pain. He concluded that he had underestimated the gruelling nature of the Brazilian club calendar and left after a single year rather than the two he had originally planned. And even though Suárez left early, the Grêmio fans were still grateful for his presence and turned up in numbers to see him off at the airport when the time came to say goodbye.

His year in Brazil was an overwhelming success, and most of the credit goes to his talent and professionalism. But a question is left dangling. All of the travelling and the sheer number of games in Brazil was an unexpected difficulty. But on the pitch, did the standard and manner of play allow Suárez to shine in a way that he no longer could in Europe and possibly will not be able to do in MLS?

At this point, Major League Soccer can introduce a convincing and compelling witness, New York City FC’s Brazilian striker Talles Magno. A teenage sensation with Vasco da Gama, Magno made the move north, on his own admission, “expecting to be one of the best players around,” as he told Brazil’s SporTV last year. “But it was very different.

“It was a big shock for me. The other players were quicker and stronger than I was, and I had to accept this, triple my efforts and my focus, and evolve. The game here is more similar to Europe than to Brazil. It’s quicker, the ball circulates faster, the game is more compact with lots of physical contact.”

In Brazil, then, Suárez had space in which to articulate his moves, and the deep defensive lines of many of his opponents allowed him easy access to the danger area, close to goal. Life in MLS is unlikely to be so accommodating.

He may well need some time to work his way up to full match fitness, but the early evidence from MLS’ first two rounds is that, even in the company of Lionel Messi, things will be tougher this year. There have been some standout moments, such as the first-time layoff that set up a goal for Diego Gómez against Real Salt Lake, or the clever dummy from Jordi Alba‘s low cross that gave Gómez a shot against LA Galaxy.

But he has hardly hit the ground running, with the TV analysts already drawing attention to his lack of mobility. It could be, then, that MLS is going to get the best of both worlds. Suárez will come up with occasional flashes of quality that will delight the fans — but will not be able to cause the same impact he did in Brazil, which will serve as evidence of the growing strength of the competition.

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