This weekend was Major League Soccer’s first matches of the season, and the score sheets of various games included familiar names for those that follow Argentine football.
Federico Higuaín, Maximiliano Moralez, and Sebastián Blanco could be found among the teams, once again showcasing Argentina’s talent for giving birth to great football players.
This is not a new phenomenon: since the beginning of the league in 1996, 61 Argentines joined the US and Canada teams, and the number is growing every year.
But first, a bit of background for those not in the loop: This year, the North American league starts off with 23 franchises, including the brand new Los Angeles FC. Divided into two conferences (East and West), they will compete in the regular season to be able to get to the playoff season in order to win the MLS Cup, which was obtained in 2017 by Toronto FC.
Historically, the number of South American players has always been high. With 24 players this year, Argentines are the first non-American or Canadian demographic in MLS; they have the second-highest goal total within the league, a number which should continue to grow with this year’s new acquisitions.
Many Argentine players are also categorized as “Designated Players.” In case you’re wondering what that means, this basically has to do with the fact that in Major League Soccer, there is a salary cap, and since David Beckham’s arrival in 2007, these players are the only ones who can have a salary exceeding US $500,000 annually. Many international stars such as Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, or Bastian Schweinsteiger fall in this category, along with many Argentines.
Most of these designated players arrived in the league in the early 2010s, each for different reasons, following the likes of Marcello Gallardo and Guillermo Schelotto, the first Argentine designated players.
For Federico Higuaín, who arrived in 2012, the Major Leagues meant the success he could never find in Europe. Ethan Finlay, who was playing at Columbus at the time, recalled: “A lot of guys thought, ‘Oh man, this is Higuaín. We’re getting a guy from Real Madrid (referring to Argentine star Gonzalo “Pipita” Higuaín, who currently plays for Juventus). It was the initial thought when you hear the name ‘Higuaín,’ and that’s the only name we knew.” Indeed, despite some good seasons in Argentina, Gonzalo’s brother never succeed in Europe. Exile in the United States was a perfect way for him to cultivate his talent and achieve fame.
There, as an aging but talented player, capable of some incredible match-saving skills, he has learned to cope with the pressure of being the highest paid player of the team.
Higuaín is the typical Argentine player the league is searching for: a number 10, a game-changer and a leader on the field. For the same reasons, Ignacio Piatti was signed by the Montreal Impact in 2014 after struggling in Europe and coming back, with success, in Buenos Aires at San Lorenzo.
In Montreal, Piatti became the most popular player on the team, overshadowing at times Didier Drogba and ending seasons with more than 17 goals in 2016 and 2017. His venue in MLS was a release for a player who struggled during his career in Argentina with salaries, for example at Gimnasia de la Plata, where the Argentina football crisis prevented him from being paid for months. These problems are avoided in the United States, where he can also release the pressure of Argentine football:
“I know how it is to live in Argentina. I played a lot of football there, and if when things were going perfectly, I was Messi, but if they weren’t, I was a disaster,” he says during an interview with Univisión Deportes. “And you have to live through this while remaining stuck at home, because their is no respect for your private life,” he assures strongly. “I really like this league (MLS), it is growing quickly, there are quality players from all over the world, and above all I enjoy the life I have in Montreal.”
The lifestyle is one of the best reasons to join the league for Argentine players, along with the salaries. Diego Valeri, yet another Designated Player and number 10 at the Portland Timbers, was a starter at his hometown club Lanús, located near Buenos Aires.
One day, while he driving his BMW, he was robbed at gunpoint. His wife and his young daughter were in the car as well. “After that moment, we thought about opportunities to play abroad and see different places in the world,” he said in an interview for the New York Times. “Situations like that are really hard for Argentine people to change.”
“It is not easy, to live day by day, in the streets… Especially in Buenos Aires,” he commented in another interview for the MLS. “I was born and raised in Lanús but Portland is my second home, every time I play I try to show how thankful I am to the city and its people.”
Since then, Valeri became one of MLS’ best success stories, winning the MVP Trophy last season, ahead of legends such as David Villa and Sebastian Giovinco. He has spoken about retiring and staying in Portland after his career comes to a close; his young daughter playing with the junior teams of Portland.
Caleb Porter, former Timbers coach who signed six Argentine players since Valeri, explains this trend in a straightforward manner to the New York Times: “Certain countries produce certain positions more. Most teams are looking for a creative element, and you know you can find one in Argentina.”
The trend is far from being over. Last season’s new franchise, Atlanta United, has taken the league by storm thanks to its offensive football produced by young South American players.
Led by Tata Martino, the former Argentine national manager, it set the trend for not only buying South American players, but for doing so at a young age: 26 players were bought by MLS franchises this year from this continent, the oldest being 27 and the average age being 22. Seven of them are Argentines, including three Designated Players. The average age of these high salary players is also evolving. The era of Kaka, Andrea Pirlo or Thierry Henry is over; clubs prefer to concentrate their budgets on young prospects.
The best example of this trend is Tata Martino’s latest signing, Ezequiel Barco, who became the league’s highest-paid transfer when he came from Independiente for 15 million dollars, at only 18 years old, despite some European clubs wanting him. Argentines are now picked up from a younger age, unlike Higuain, Piatti and Valeri, with the intention of going to Europe later.
One backdrop remains for all these young Argentine players joining the MLS. Unlike their compatriots staying in the Argentine first division, they are never selected to play for the national team. While MLS players from Paraguay, Uruguay, or Chile are playing with with their country, no Argentine players have done so while in the league: Sebastian Blanco, Diego Valeri, Alejandro Romero Gamarra, and Maximiliano Moralez all played with the Albiceleste, but never during their time in Major League Soccer. At the moment, going to the MLS means putting an international career on the back burner.