Gregory Sica
Wednesday January 30th, 2008

If you've noticed that Major League Soccer headlines have taken on a Spanish feel lately, it's no accident. But by the time the 2007 season ended, the league's greatest victory was the success of its Latin American players.

And while Mexico's Cuauhtémoc Blanco got most of the ink, it was the accomplishments of South American players like Luciano Emilio, Juan Pablo Ángel and Guillermo Barros Schelotto that took the league by storm. It's no surprise that this season, MLS has accelerated the trend of bringing in talented South Americans. If the 13-year-old league's goal is to eventually join the world's elite, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

South America, of course, has contributed heaps of world-class players to the world game over the years, and the thought of bringing Argentines, Brazilians, Colombians and Uruguayans to MLS couldn't be a better one. If you scan the top leagues in Europe -- Spain, Italy, Germany and now even England -- the rosters are dominated by large amounts of South Americans.

This is nothing new to the world, but for a league like MLS, which has prided itself on homegrown talent, the recent influx of talented South Americans is a big change in philosophy. South American soccer is renowned for the skill and quality of its players, its different styles, the interest it attracts among its fans and the dedication they have for the sport.

If the South American imports are able to inject all this into MLS, as the great Pelé did when he joined the New York Cosmos in 1977, the league may well undergo such a huge transformation that its teams may eventually compete with the top clubs of Europe, both in success and popularity. This isn't an exaggeration.

The league is taking its first step this season. MLS will count on the services of more than 25 South Americans, and the number is likely to increase before the primary transfer window closes in mid-April now that the league allows clubs to have more foreigners.

From all the teams looking at acquiring talented South Americans, the club leading the charge is a familiar one, D.C. United. On Tuesday it unveiled its latest signing: highly rated Argentine playmaker Marcelo Gallardo, who joined the club on a free transfer from Paris Saint-Germain. El Muñeco became D.C.'s fifth South American acquisition in less than a week.

Although the club's other four purchases, José Carvallo, Gonzalo Peralta, Gonzalo Martínez and Franco Niell, are relatively unknown commodities, they promise to impress this season, and are likely to help the four-time MLS Cup champs mount a strong title challenge.

D.C. has been MLS' trendsetter when it comes to signing South American players over the years and much of its success has been defined by the South Americans among its ranks. In the league's inaugural season of '96, D.C. boasted Bolivian soccer legend Marco Etcheverry, and a young Jaime Moreno, another Bolivian.

Etcheverry went on to lead the club to three MLS Cups before retiring after the '03 season. Moreno, who this week signed a one-year contract extension, has been on all four of D.C.'s title-winning teams and is the all-time leading scorer in MLS history with 112 goals.

Heading into '08, United counts nine South Americans on its 23-man roster, including last season's MLS MVP, Emilio, as well as fellow Brazilian Fred. But with Gallardo's arrival, Argentine playmaker Christian Gómez (the '06 MVP) will reportedly be dealt to Colorado, where he'd agree to a new deal with the Rapids.

D.C. hasn't been the only club that has counted on top-quality South Americans over the years. While Carlos Valderrama is considered one of the greatest imports to ever play in MLS, a host of his Colombian compatriots have also made names for themselves in MLS.

But it was last season's trio of Colombians who were perhaps the most impressive since the lion-maned Valderrama hung up his cleats in '04. Former Aston Villa striker Ángel notched up an impressive 19 goals for the New York Red Bulls, while mullet-topped Juan Carlos Toja breathed life and creativity into the FC Dallas attack. Meanwhile, late addition Wilman Conde added consistency to the Chicago Fire defense, and was part of the biggest turnaround story in MLS.

The rush for teams to land gifted South Americans is unlikely to lose any momentum. According to recent reports from the Argentine press, former Argentine internationals Ariel Ortega and Claudio López are also on the verge of joining MLS.

They could be followed by Boca Juniors legend Martín Palermo, who has admitted he'd be interested in a move to MLS in the near future. And the book still isn't closed on Juan Sebastián Verón, who at the last minute rejected a big-money transfer to D.C. United to stay at his beloved Estudiantes de La Plata. La Brujita is still keen on a move to the U.S., and may do so at the end of the '08 Copa Libertadores.

Talent, creativity and soccer smarts -- that's what MLS is after when it turns to South America, not to mention one of the few strong exchange rates on the relatively weak American dollar. So what's in it for the players?

MLS offers what most South American leagues can't: a stable playing environment where players can focus completely on the soccer without getting hassled by the media. And they're given the opportunity to play in a competitive league that provides them with security and comparatively good salaries.

When Gallardo rejected Argentine Clausura champions San Lorenzo in favor of D.C. United, he explained to the Argentine press that his choice had much to do with the fact that in MLS, he wouldn't have to put up with the pressures associated with Argentine soccer.

MLS clubs are taking advantage of this attitude to great effect. The majority of coaches take scouting trips to the southern hemisphere now to unearth a gem. MLS has earned a worldwide reputation for being a second- to third-tier, but highly physical, league. But the quality of play is improving, and much of that is due to the influx of South Americans.

David Beckham may have supplied the initial pop, but it's the South Americans who have brought the substance. It's the next step in making MLS a world-class soccer league.

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