Sublime skills aside, the three finalists for last year's MVP award had two things in common: All were newcomers to MLS, and all are Latino. The recent influx from points south—19 of the league's 24 acquisitions this off-season come from Latin America—has comprised a sprinkling of high-priced designated players and a slew of under-the-radar talents from clubs in traditional soccer hotbeds such as Argentina and Brazil. As U.S. stars become more attractive to teams overseas, the prudent play for MLS is to restock with players who are just as good but not nearly as expensive.
"Within the last five years we've made more of an effort to build relationships in South America, to turn over every rock and try to identify and sign players," says D.C. United general manager Dave Kasper. "There's tons of talented players, and they're in export markets. Clubs are looking to develop players and sell them so they can survive financially." United, which finished with the league's best record in 2007, has been at the forefront of the movement. The team is scouting the region heavily and building a massive DVD library from the games recorded on its 20 satellite receivers.
That legwork paid off for D.C. last year with two Brazilian acquisitions who sparked the most potent attack in MLS. Plucked out of the Honduran league for the bargain price of $293,000 a year, 29year-old forward Luciano Emilio led MLS with 20 goals and won both the MVP and Newcomer of the Year awards. With $222,000, United also signed an Australian league midfielder from Brazil, 29-year-old Fred, who ranked among the league's leaders with eight assists. Then last January, D.C. upped the ante and plunged into the DP market, spending $1.3 million a year on attacking midfielder Marcelo Gallardo, 32, who has twice represented Argentina in the World Cup.
Other clubs are working to keep up. Last April the Red Bulls brought in 32-year-old Colombian international forward Juan Pablo Angel as their DP. In 24 games for New York, he scored 19 times and, with Chicago's Cuauhtémoc Blanco, was an MVP finalist. Among the new Latino imports to watch this summer: Franco Caraccio, F, Houston Dynamo. Signed in February, the unheralded Argentine striker will have big boots to fill. The two-time defending champs lost strikers Nate Jaqua and Joseph Ngwenya—who combined for 13 goals—to Austrian teams. So the 21year-old Caraccio, whose only senior club experience is six games for Argentina's Arsenal de Sarandí, will be the Dynamo's number 10. Claudio Lopez, F, Kansas City Wizards. Gallardo's teammate on Argentina's 1998 and 2002 World Cup squads, the small, scurrying 33year-old is known as El Piojo—the Louse. The Wizards signed him as their first DP in March. Matias Cordoba, M, Real Salt Lake. The 23-year-old Argentine striker should feel at home in Utah. Last year RSL brought in three of his countrymen—Fabiàn Espíndola, Matias Mantilla and Javier Morales—who combined for four goals and four assists in 29 games.
GETTY IMAGES/MLS/WIREIMAGE.COM (EMILIO)
GOL-DRIVEN D.C.'s Emilio (top) and New York's Angel (in white) validated MLS's southern strategy.
MIKE STROBE/GETTY IMAGES (ANGEL)
[See caption above]