When Jorge Perlaza and Diego Charà arrived from Colombia to join the Portland Timbers last year, all they knew about the Pacific Northwest was each other: The two have been friends since Perlaza was 14 and Charà was 12. But soon they found themselves embracing a hard-core soccer culture unlike anything they expected. The first sign was Timber Joey, the chain-saw-toting mascot who cuts off a slab from a giant log after every Portland goal. "Very impressive," says Perlaza, a 27-year-old forward. "In Colombia we don't let chain saws in the stadium!"
Then there was the fan atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field, where the Timbers Army leads a raucous sound track for sellout crowds of more than 20,000 in the self-proclaimed Soccer City USA. "The people here live soccer," says midfielder Charà, 25. "You come here and see the full stadium, something that isn't common in Colombia. We always thought the U.S. was about the NBA and NFL."
Each year the North American f√∫tbol culture grows: With the addition of Portland in 2010 and Montreal this season, Major League Soccer now has 19 teams, up from 12 in '06. And each year more teams are signing talent from abroad, especially Colombia. When MLS's 17th season kicked off last weekend, opening-day rosters included 29 players born in Colombia, more than any other country except the U.S. Colombians have always had a presence in MLS—crazy-coiffed midfielder Carlos Valderrama was a league original—but their numbers have soared recently, with 14 joining since the end of last season.
While Colombia has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1998, the nation still produces quality players. FIFA ranked it No. 5 in the world in international transfers in 2011, and Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola recently called Radamel Falcao of Atlético Madrid the world's most dangerous forward in the box. But talent is only one reason behind the MLS pipeline, according to Diego Gutiérrez, the Philadelphia Union's sporting director. "The Colombian player is coachable and for the most part bilingual, so assimilation is easier," says Gutiérrez, a former MLS All-Star who was born in Bogotà. "And the financial part is big. As [MLS has] grown in resources, [Colombian teams] have gone the other way." Value for money is paramount given the tight salary cap, and Colombians have delivered in MLS. Dallas midfielder David Ferreira was the 2010 MVP, Real Salt Lake's Jàmison Olave was the '10 Defender of the Year, and Chivas USA forward Juan Pablo Angel has been the league's most successful foreign Designated Player.
This season Colombians are the top attacking threats for Seattle (Fredy Montero), Colorado (Jaime Castrillón), San Jose (Tressor Moreno), Philadelphia (Lionard Pajoy), Dallas (Ferreira), Chivas (Angel) and Portland. "They help bring a rhythm to the field," says Valderrama, 50, who starred in MLS for seven seasons and counseled Moreno on his move to San Jose. "I'm proud of the Colombians who are helping to make the league grow."
No team has a deeper connection than Portland, which has four Colombians under contract (Charà, Perlaza, defender Hanyer Mosquera and forward José Adolfo Valencia) and a fifth on trial (forward Sebastiàn Rincón). "In this league it means so much to have a player who's earning his wages and worth every penny," says G.M. Gavin Wilkinson. "We came in as the 18th team, and the best Americans were either extremely expensive or taken. We had to look at other avenues for quality players."
Wilkinson's contact in Colombia is Alejandro Taraciuk, an Argentine agent who works for MLS as a fixer throughout South America. Once Portland decides on a player to pursue, Taraciuk brokers the deal with the player's agent and his Colombian club. The Timbers' relationship with Taraciuk requires trust: MLS is a single-entity league, and Taraciuk has also helped Portland's archrival, Seattle, land Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. "When I expressed concern," says Wilkinson, "he told me, 'What you tell me is your business, and if you're after this player, I'll work to get you that player.' I've never had any problems with his integrity."
Once the Colombians arrive in Portland, a player relations manager is on call 24 hours a day to ease the adjustment. "It's very tranquil here," says Charà, who lives with his wife and two daughters. "There's security, which is important, and the people are very friendly." The Colombians take English classes three times a week, which also helps them fit in. At the Timbers' kickoff luncheon Perlaza walked across the stage and announced in English, "I want to win an MLS Cup." It brought the house down.
A REAL TEST FOR THE GALAXY
The power rests out West, where star-studded L.A. and workmanlike Salt Lake will fight for the title
GRANT WAHL'S PREDICTIONS
1. Kansas City
A young team on the rise, Sporting has figured out how to play coach Peter Vermes's 4-3-3 system. Graham Zusi is set for another big year in the midfield, and count me among those who think Bobby Convey will thrive as a wing forward.
The Dynamo will be more settled this year, with Geoff Cameron emerging as a star at center back. Veteran midfielder Brad Davis just keeps going and going.
3. New York
Spectacular success or brutal failure? Either is a possibility for the league's most intriguing team.
Hard not to like what midfielders Sebastiàn Grazzini and Pavel Pardo have brought to the Fire.
Behind midfielder Torsten Frings and forward Danny Koevermans, Toronto FC will reward its famously supportive fans with a first playoff berth.
6. D.C. United
Reigning MVP Dwayne De Rosario has more around him, but this is still a work in progress.
The Crew has yet to really recover from the loss of playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto after the 2010 season.
The Union jettisoned forward Sébastien Le Toux and is building for the long term. Expect growing pains.
9. New England
New coach Jay Heaps admits he has a lot to do in remaking the Revolution. There'll be no miracles in year one.
The expansion Impact will play aggressively and do their fans proud, but goals will be hard to come by.
1. Los Angeles
The reigning champs had MLS's best off-season, retaining midfielders David Beckham and Juninho and bringing forward Edson Buddle back from Germany for scoring punch.
2. Salt Lake
When healthy, RSL is the team that best stacks up against the Galaxy. The window may be closing on the decorated group of Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales, Nat Borchers, Jàmison Olave, Nick Rimando and Alvaro Saborío.
The Sounders have three MVP candidates in forward Fredy Montero and midfielders Mauro Rosales and Osvaldo Alonso. How veteran striker Eddie Johnson fits into the team will determine how far Seattle can go.
If Scottish DP Kris Boyd can bang in the goals, the Timbers will take the next step, into the playoffs.
5. San Jose
Among the Earthquakes' deft off-season pickups were Colombian playmaker Tressor Moreno and former Dallas midfielder Marvin Chàvez. Chris Wondolowski is a proven finisher.
Uncertainty over possible European moves for young stars Brek Shea and George John could be a distraction.
Óscar Pareja, in his first year in charge of the Rapids, is going to need some time to establish his system.
New coach Martin Rennie has a wealth of attacking options and has improved the defense.
9. Chivas USA
Not a bad team, but the West is brutally tough. Keep an eye on Ecuadoran midfielder Oswaldo Minda.
AWARDS AND MLS CUP WINNER
He may be 30, but he's primed for a season setting up the Galaxy's other stars. International dates don't conflict too much this year.
The Red Bulls' striker, who did a loan stint with Arsenal this winter, still knows how to score. I don't see that changing.
Coach of the Year
San Jose's headman will remind everyone why he has won two MLS Cups when his smart off-season moves pay off.
Bruce Arena has built a fearsome outfit that can sustain success over the long haul. Not always pretty, but ruthless.
The playoffs are more of a crapshoot, and the new two-game conference final will provide Real the chance to dethrone L.A.
Photograph by Rod Mar/Seattle Sounders FC
NEW WORLD Montero (in blue, during the Sounders' 2--1 CONCACAF Champions League victory over Santos on March 7) may be the most talented of the 29 Colombians in MLS this season.
SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (VALDERRAMA)
RUSS ISABELLA/US PRESSWIRE