The Argentineeconomic collapse of December 2001 devalued the currency by two thirds,vaporized citizens' savings and led to a revolving door of five presidents intwo weeks. Suddenly it was far more attractive to earn, say, dollars instead ofpesos, and skilled Argentines fanned out across the globe--soccer playersincluded. "I never thought about coming here, but the devaluation changedour way of thinking," says D.C. United midfielder Christian Gómez, whojoined MLS in 2004 after 13 years as a pro in his native country. "But itwasn't solely about the money. Coming to the U.S. seemed like a good idea, anopportunity."
Gómez's earningpower is going up and up, and the favorable exchange rate isn't the onlyreason. At week's end the 31-year-old playmaker had 10 goals to go with ateam-high nine assists and was the biggest reason that D.C. (a league-best14-4-10) was the heavy favorite to win its record fifth league title."Christian has been the engine in our midfield," says United coachPeter Nowak. "There aren't many true playmakers in this league who have somuch impact on one team. We know what kind of qualities he can bring to thetable: free kicks, corner kicks, his passing, his vision. It's old-schoolplaymaking, and it's very rare in this athletic world of soccer rightnow."
Not since the daysof fellow South Americans Carlos Valderrama (Colombia) and Marco Etcheverry(Bolivia) has an MLS midfield maestro enjoyed a season quite like the one Gómezis having. As the most influential player on MLS's top side, he's the leadingchoice for MVP. "He's one of the best players this league has everseen," says United midfielder Ben Olsen. "Sometimes you get playmakerswho don't deal with the defensive side, or who can spring balls but can't runwith the ball. But Christian is doing everything for us. He has no realweakness."
In many ways Gómezrepresents the ideal foreign signing for MLS: an under-the-radar player in theprime of his career who's both entertaining and inexpensive. (He'll earn alaughably low guaranteed salary of $182,000 this season as part of a contractthat runs through 2008.) In his first season Gómez provided United with itsfirst true playmaker in years, helping the team to the MLS Cup. After anAll-Star season in 2005, he has further asserted himself this year by takingover games with timely goals, dead-eye passing and pinpoint set pieces. What'smore, Gómez has found a kindred spirit in Nowak, a former playmaker and Polandteam captain who is a candidate to become the next coach of the U.S. nationalteam. "Peter wants everyone to be good with the ball and to be patient, tofind exactly the moment to go to the goal," says Gómez. "And when weget the goal, we need to manage the ball and control the game. That's how weget results."
In addition to hissurpassing talent, Gómez brings a welcome dose of Argentina's legendaryappetite for f√∫tbol. During a late-season game in New Jersey last year againstthe MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls), the television cameras caught aremarkable sight in the stands. Was that really Christian Gómez banging a drumwith United's hard-core fans? Indeed it was. Suspended due to an accumulationof yellow cards, Gómez drove to the game on his own and watched from thestands, like any other D.C. supporter. "In Argentina we live with a lot ofpassion, and we were losing 1--0 at halftime," Gómez says. "So at thestart of the second half some Argentine fans called up to me, and I went overand picked up a drum and started playing. The fans liked it, and we ended upwinning 4--1."
Gómez's naturalenthusiasm (he had no idea the TV cameras would catch him) was just one of manysigns that he has grown comfortable in his new home. He and his Argentineteammates, midfielder Matias Donnet and defender Facundo Erpen, along withBolivian forward Jaime Moreno, live within 10 minutes of each other in thesuburbs of northern Virginia, and they almost always ride to training in thesame car. Their families--including Gómez's wife, Claudia, and twins Gabrieland Augustina--often gather for barbecues on their days off. "We're alwaysamong friends here," Gómez says with a smile.
It's a ringingendorsement for a place that's fast becoming Buenos Aires on the Potomac.
They May Rise in the Fall
D.C. United will end the regular season with MLS's bestrecord, but that won't matter once the postseason starts on Oct. 21. Eight ofMLS's 12 teams reach the playoffs, which means that a club can finish in theleague's bottom half and still win the title (as the Los Angeles Galaxy didlast season). Here are five teams that could give United a run for the Alan I.Rothenberg Trophy.
L.A. Galaxy: Landon Donovan will have to rally his teamto make the playoffs, but it has the talent to repeat last year's titlerun.
Houston Dynamo: Dwayne DeRosario (above) is always anMVP candidate, and forward Brian Ching is getting healthy at the righttime.
FC Dallas: Kenny Cooper (nine goals) has been theleague's top newcomer, while Carlos Ruiz remains a dangerous goal scorer.
Chicago Fire: It's been the league's hottest team sincedefender Tony Sanneh began playing the way he did for the U.S. in '02.
New England Revolution: The strangely mediocre Revsmight start playing up to their talent level once the stakes get higher.
TONY QUINN/WIREIMAGE.COM (GOMEZ)
MIDFIELD MAESTRO With MVP favorite Gómez in charge, D.C. has only three losses.
FRED KFOURY/ICON SMI (DEROSARIO)