The Latinization of MLS

The reasons for the current influx of Latin American players into MLS and the positive benefits it brought RSL and could bring the league
by Mike Firpo   |   Monday, January 30, 2012

The Latinization of Major League Soccer (MLS)

I’m not even certain Latinization is a word, but if it is Major League Soccer is certainly on that path. Seemingly every few days since the 2011 MLS season concluded there seems to be yet another Latin American signing for one club or another in the league. Colombians, Argentinians, Ecuadorians, Brazilians … the league’s clubs are quickly retooling their 2012 rosters with loads of Latin American players. Finally the pipeline seems to be tapped and flowing to nearly all clubs in the league.

One of the top reasons MLS expansion detractors gave against adding clubs, was the lack of enough domestic players to fill the league with. That the talent pool wasn’t deep or wide enough with American youngsters and that the dissipation of the existing players would lead to a watered down talent level leaguewide and that the on-field ”product” would suffer. The main counterpoint to that argument was that soccer, unlike American sports, is truly a world game and there is much more affordable talent, and usually of a higher caliber, than what is produced out of the domestic colleges, high schools and now academies

The entire world is a big place to have as a player pool and in soccer no region of the world has produced more of the world’s best players from the last 50 years and those of today, than Latin America.

Many of MLS’ most talented players of its past hailed from Latin America, albeit usually of the lesser soccer powers than Brazil, Argentina or Mexico, but nonetheless they have impacted the entire history of the league, arguably more than Europeans, Africans or Asians. Some of those past Latin American MLS stars included:
Argentina: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Marcelo Gallardo, Claudio Lopez, Christian Gómez
Bolivia:  Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno
Brazil: Luciano Emilio
Colombia: Carlos Valderrama, Diego Serna
El Salvador:  Raul Díaz Arce, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Ronald Cerritos
Guatemala: Carlos Ruiz
Honduras: Alex Pineda Chacon, Amado Guevara
Mexico: Jorge Campos, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Hermosillo, Cuauhtemoc Blanco

And there is also a current crop of talented Latin Americans in MLS today:
Argentina: Javier Morales, Mauro Rosales
Colombia: Fredy Montero, Jamison Olave, Faryd Mondragon, David Ferreira, Juan Pablo Angel
Costa Rica: Alvaro Saborío
Cuba: Osvaldo Alonso
Ecuador: Joao Plata
Honduras: Andy Najar
Mexico: Rafa Marquez, Pavel Pardo
Uruguay: Alvaro Fernandez
Venezuela: Alejandro Moreno

In the current offseason as well we have seen more Latin talents sign with the league like proven Panamanian goalscorer Blas Perez to Dallas, Colombian youth international startlet José Adolfo Valencia to Seattle and experienced Ecuadorian defender Geovanny Caicedo over to Toronto.

Those are just the standout names from an increasingly long list of Latin Americans that have joined MLS preseason rosters this winter. This is not even to mention the uptick in the number of domestic Latin-Americans of full or mixed Mexican or other Hispanic heritage, usually second generation or so. That new trend is likely due to the increasing prominence and eventual dependence on the MLS and USSF academy systems and the slowly but surely growing understanding of the worth of the technical prowess of many of these players who have been traditionally overlooked for more athletic types.

Though some MLS coaches don’t seem to put as much stock into this region with unending amounts of talents, preferring to go with players nearer their country of origin like Hans Backe of NY Red Bulls (as we’ll see later) who employs a disproportionate number of Nordic and other Europeans players to the former Gary Smith, now coach of English 3rd division club Stevenage, who took a bunch of British players and their physical style of play all the way to the 2010 MLS Cup and won it. Amazingly he has been subsequently replaced by former MLS and Colombian national teamer Oscar Pareja, no coincidence there that the Rapids have been one of MLS’ most busy “Latinizing” (that can’t be a word either) clubs during this offseason. Pretty evident there that the ownership decided that confessed coach and club administration and their style of play weren’t working to attract new fans or raise the profile of the club, that despite winning the MLS Cup a season prior. That speaks volumes about the way the league’s clubs and owners might be going. That is – to a very Latin-centric MLS.

So why the sudden overwhelming attraction with Latin American talent?
Well there is probably no one main reason for the sudden increase of Latin American signings, because again they’ve always been present, but it could be a combination of the following things:

Marketing: This is probably the weakest reason of the bunch, but it could be that MLS owners and league and club officials want to target more Latin Americans in hopes of attracting more and more of the Hispanic American audience to MLS who already love the sport and have foreign club allegiances in the Americas or Europe.

Poor Economy: The global economic problems are of course relative but there are places where it has hit worse more than others. The USA being the epicenter of the downturn, a lot of businesses, sponsors, MLS owners and even fans have to be smarter with what they already have. With most of the league’s clubs now managing or owning stadiums of their own you’d think that more than just LA or New York would have sprung for more Designated Players with big salaries. Due to the financial collapse however, it’s possible that owners now want to be more fiscally conservative and look for deals, a la the recent film Moneyball. They do want to win though. So where better to go looking for talented but affordable players, but in Latin America. Outside of the lucratively TV-backed Mexican league and a Brazilian league within an exploding economy, the other leagues in Latin America can prove to be bargains.

Latin-European Pipeline Slowing: Also related is the affect the dour economy has had on European transfers and club economics. Outside of the relative safety of the petro-cash fueled Chelsea, Manchester City, PSG and Malaga – most other clubs have been spending far too high a rate of their incomes on player salaries and since the global recession and the threat of UEFA with the upcoming Financial Fair Play rules meant to stimy that, euro clubs have quickly gotten more conservative in their transfer policies. This January’s transfer window has probably been one of the least active in the last decade, with less players moving to-and-fro and certainly not less big names moving … anywhere. That also means Europe’s most consistent talent pipelines established over the last few decades to stock its clubs, South America, is starting to dry up. Yes, the big players still move abroad from Argentina and Brazil, but when the continent’s most promising youngster Neymar is still playing domestically, the writing is on the wall. Those big name players at the peaks of their careers or earlier are definitely not in MLS’ current salary cap model, so those guys will for the time being keep going to Europe, the Mid East and wherever the best pay beckons. But the middle rung players that would work well in the MLS like Javier Morales, Fredy Montero or a David Ferreira will be more accessible. With the euro pipeline slowing down MLS might have better chances landing more and higher caliber Latino players.

Stature:  If you’re a talented young or middle-aged footballer in Colombia and you don’t think your club or league is a challenge, not paying well enough and is not competitive regionally – the urge to move might beckon. That’s what’s happening right now with some South and Central America leagues. Either they are stagnant competitively, eroding in terms of stadia/training infrastructure, games are played in sparsely attended stadia with passion-diffusing tracks around them, players get less competitive pay (in some cases wages are paid months late or not at all) and the leagues simply don’t have enough global presence for players to feel they can be seen by scouts in big European leagues. When they see the LA Galaxy playing in Asia on TV or read about New York winning a tournament in London, they may realize that playing in Bogota might never get them onto the bigger stages of the game. MLS might seem more and more attractive as that springboard. With that and the fact that some South American national teams (like Colombia) now look at MLS as a legitimate league from which to call-up national team players from, which it used to overlook, there is an added value to playing in the league. There is also something to say for MLS being shown worldwide, even in clips to player agents, clubs, players and fans – everyone can see the league is growing and not just with the big names of Beckham, Henry & Keane but by packed stadiums in Portland and Seattle, with fabulous facilities in Kansas City and New Jersey and the overall appeal of joining a league on the rise, as opposed to a league that is stagnant.

Quality of Life: Even with a recession the USA still has a much higher standard of living than most Latin American nations. Even for a relatively well paid footballer, the comforts, safety and less stressful lifestyle proves to be a big lure for players, especially one’s with young families and that want their child to grow up with an American lifestyle, education and passport. Also with soccer still growing in importance in the US, many players who come from places where the game is revered akin to religion, can come to the USA and still play the game they love but also go to the mall without being harangued by local fans or rivals. The anonymity America provides soccer players is something they cannot have at home or even in Europe. For some players and their wives, this is a huge factor in whether to play in MLS and North America. QOL has always been a factor in this decision making process, but when you add it to the other factors – its compelling for sure. 

The RSL Model: One of the most successful clubs in MLS over the past few years has been Real Salt Lake. They won an MLS Cup in 2009, have been top 3 points leaders the last 2 years and advanced to the Final of the 2011 CONCACAF Champions League. In the process they’ve rallied the league and the nation’s soccer fandom into following or at least admiring their attractive possession style game and hoping they would carry the torch as the league’s standard-barer in the FIFA Club World Cup.

All this while, most of that time, having no Designated Players and the team mutually agreeing to smaller salaries to in order to keep the core together and continue their attractive winning ways. Maybe more importantly and not given much attention, they did all this with having a team composed of players only from the Americas.

RSL’s young coach Jason Kreis and General Manager Garth Lagerway have made many wise decisions and have had a fair amount of success with less resources at their disposal than bigger market MLS teams. The RSL brand of soccer: technique-laden, balls played on the ground, short passing, few crosses and few long balls – might also have led to the increase of its local fanbase and in-stadium passion. Most fans dislike bad soccer and it certainly doesn’t convert many new ones to the sport. But good soccer, even when it doesn’t win, is fun for fans and certainly can help the business side of clubs’ fortunes as well. RSL went from being a mismanaged expansion club from a small market, playing unattractive and non-winning soccer in a big turfed football stadium in front of paltry crowds - to - playing appealing soccer in a boutique stadium in front of passionate crowds on limited resources and devoid of overpaid soccer-elderly Europeans ending their careers.

So it’s quite possible that MLS owners, administrators and coaching staffs are coming around to the RSL way.

Take a look below at the makeup of two very contrasting MLS pre-season rosters; RSL and the New York Red Bulls. RSL is composed of a roster strictly from the Americas while NYRB relies on a costlier roster from other continents with a heavy reliance on Europeans.

RSL versus NY Red Bull rosters

What’s also quite interesting is the makeup of those nationalities for both clubs. RSL has not only more North Americans than Red Bull (16 versus 10 respectively) but they also count more domestic American players of Hispanic origin. It’s evident RSL believes in domestic players more than NYRB, but also the technically proficient domestic Hispanic players as well that have for so long been overlooked by MLS and the American coaching, scouting and developmental systems.

RSL versus NY Red Bull rosters

RSL is just an example for how far an MLS club can go with belief in players from the Americas. Clearly many of the league’s best players have come from the futbol dazzling nations to our south.

What’s not so clear is how much more can MLS improve its flair, skill and technique with this emergent influx of players from Latin America. It certainly cannot hurt.

The American game has long been influenced by the European game, especially in regards to British coaching. Now, with the all-popular EPL, British playing terminology and styles have grown popular – leading the Americans, and to a lesser degree MLS, to focus too heavily on athleticism, physicality and aggression.

One can only surmise that with significant and unabating increases in the numbers of Latino players in MLS, the league will become more appealing to existing hardcore soccer fans who follow overseas leagues and help to convert new fans by showing them a league with good entertainment value.

I know I am excited by a league that embraces the talents and skills of its domestic Hispanic population, while courting more and more Latin American players to come and play here in their primes. Who knows, the next diminutive, crooked legged yet highly skillful Argentine might decide to play in the MLS in the future, instead of in Barcelona.

The Latinization of MLS could be the connective fiber MLS needs to go from unpolished teen to strong young man ready to compete with the big boys. And it just might be the players with tons of skill and a bunch of vowels in their names who make that possible. Viva MLS!

Mike FIRPO

Nationality:
USA
College:
Binghamton Univ.
Club Domestic:
NY Cosmos, RSL
Club Foreign:
Palermo, Napoli, FCB
Creator of Soccer Newsday. President of World Football Travel. Founder of NY Cosmos Campaign. Manager of North American Soccer Industry group on LinkedIn. Helped a few fans see the global game. Proposed on-field at MLS Cup 04. Longtime devotee of Soccer.
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