Before Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry and David Beckham, there was Lothar Matthaus.
Back in 2000, the German star made worldwide headlines by coming to MLS, joining the old New York/New Jersey MetroStars. It was the final stop in a glittering career that included worldwide fame with Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Germany's national team.
"You have a good, organized championship [league] here, you have better stadiums than 18 years ago, you have more supporters in the stadiums," he told the Inquirer and Daily News. "When I was playing for the MetroStars, I opened the newspaper sports section and [asked], where can I find soccer? Soccer was on the last page in the last corner. … Now the newspaper gives you pages for soccer."
(The guy who brought him here, by the way, was future Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz.)
Matthaus joked that "other sports like to keep soccer down" in the United States, but he has no doubt about how much the world's game is growing here.
"The money for soccer is not so big like in other sports, and this can be a problem," he said. "MLS is working very well, but they cannot change everything from one year to another. … It will come step-by-step, but not as fast as I wish it."
The pace of growth would speed up if the bid to bring the 2026 World Cup to the U.S., Mexico and Canada is successful. For a long time, it seemed like a slam dunk, but the tide has turned toward rival Morocco in recent months. Matthaus believes, as do many other observers, that President Trump's loud criticism of immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia has been a factor.
"You have to see the political situation in the U.S. in this moment," he said. "It is an open fight."
Matthaus believes the North American bid should win that fight.
"When you see the cities, the stadiums and everything [here] and then Morocco, it favors the U.S., Mexico and Canada," he said. "They have big cities, big hotels, big airports, big stadiums. Everything is here. In Morocco, you have to build it."
He took specific aim not just at what has to be built in Morocco — the country would spend nearly $16 billion on infrastructure, including nine new stadiums — but the potential for those stadiums to become white elephants after the tournament. There's a long history of that among past World Cup hosts.
The North American bid would use only existing stadiums, with some renovations to older venues like Montreal's Olympic Stadium.
"I cannot see in Morocco [how] you have 10 stadiums [built] with 50 or 60 or 70,000 spectators and how they're going to use it after the World Cup," Matthaus said. "It's like South Africa — South Africa has beautiful stadiums during the World Cup, and later, like the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro [Brazil], it's falling down. I think it's the same — it's important when you invest so much money, you have to use it for the future."