photo by Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports
By FRANCO PANIZO
MLS has long stated that one of its chief goals is to become a top league by 2022. Strides have been taken and other moves planned to help accomplish that, including signing big-name players in their primes and expanding into more marquee markets.
There is, however, something MLS can do to help accelerate the process: Tap into more of South American’s deep pool of talent.
Almost since its inception, MLS has made an effort to sign quality players from South America. Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama and Bolivian striker Jaime Moreno were just some of the many faces from the continent to join the league during its infant years, and their performance, production, and flare all have helped open doors for more South Americans.
Currently, there is a bevy of talent from that region in MLS. From Portland Timbers playmaker Diego Valeri to the dynamic Fabian Castillo of FC Dallas to D.C. United’s crafty Fabian Espindola, several MLS clubs heavily rely on South American talent to help carry them through the arduous league campaign that runs from March until, if you’re good enough, December.
Still, the majority of those South Americans in the league right now, and those of the past, have come from three places: Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil.
There’s no denying that those countries boast plenty of skillful players, but they are far from the only ones. Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, and the other South American countries also have talent in abundance that can come in, help clubs win games, and improve the product on the field.
Need examples? Look at Real Salt Lake’s Ecuadorian winger, Joao Plata, who is so good on the ball that he makes up for his lack of size at 5-foot-2. There is also Chilean attacking midfielder Pedro Morales, who is not having a great year statistically but has helped the Vancouver Whitecaps to the top spot in the Western Conference.
Players like Plata and Morales might be a dime a dozen in their homelands, but in MLS they are still outliers. They don’t have many, if any, compatriots in the league, as clubs continue to primarily lean on talent from Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil.
That is why it was so refreshing to see the Seattle Sounders sign Paraguayan forward Nelson Valdez to a Designated Player deal last week. Does Valdez fill a need for the Sounders? That’s debatable. But what he does provide the club is another experienced option up top, one with a proven track record for scoring goals and one that could possibly open the door for more Paraguayans to be scouted and signed in the years to come.
In fact, MLS should make it a point to try and become the destination league for all South America much in the same way that it has in Central America and the Caribbean. That might mean taking away from some of the resources that the league has in Europe, but would be worth it in the long haul if it means landing young South American talent.
After all, there are only so many players from Europe like Sebastian Giovinco that MLS is going to convince to come over in their primes or early in their careers. Even then, they will probably still cost a pretty penny.
Compare to that South America, where players will come relatively cheaper. Yes, Europe will always have the luster of the UEFA Champions League, but MLS has the allure of being in the United States (and Canada), where there is a good quality of life, a competitive league, paychecks that are paid on time, and more safety and privacy than in some European nations.
“It’s no surprise that there’s a lot of talent in Central and South America, particularly in Argentina,” said New York Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis over the weekend while unveiling the club’s newest plater, Gonzalo Veron. “Recently in the league office, I had an opportunity to work on a number of different player transactions – Fredy Montero, Fabian Castillo – so (the Red Bulls) knew that this was an area that we wanted to focus on to find a lot of talent.”
Montero, who is Colombian, is a perfect example of the model MLS could follow. The Sounders acquired him on loan at a young age before signing him outright to a Designated Player deal after seeing how effective he was on the field. He continued to do well in the league, and eventually drew interest from foreign clubs.
Seattle and MLS then had a decision to make: Keep him and his productivity or sell him for a sizable profit that could be reinvested in the league and club. They chose the latter.
Not everyone will pan out like Montero did, of course, and there will be some players who just fail to pan out all together. That is inevitable. MLS would also likely face stiff competition for talented players from Liga MX, who can offer good wages and a challenging league as well.
Still, MLS should begin to put in even more resources into South America, all parts of it, than it currently does. Expanding its reach down there could pay major dividends, especially since the perception of the league continues to improve.
“I think around the world everyone views MLS as the league of the future, the league where a lot of players want to come,” said Veron. “It’s becoming very competitive and I think any player would like to come and play here in this league of North America. That’s how it’s viewed (from the outside), like a league that is competitive where all the players want to come.”