COLUMBUS, Ohio—Even in the sprawling megalopolis of Gran Buenos Aires, an area of some 14 million people and a glut of 17 clubs competing in Argentina’s first division, soccer can be a small world. That seems especially true for the enganche—the playmaker. No position is more closely associated with the country’s football than that of the stylish No. 10, and it’s only natural that they keep tabs on each other.
Diego Valeri, who wears an ‘8’ on his jersey but certainly fits the profile of a No. 10, said this week that he kept an eye on his enganche brethren in MLS well before moving north to Portland. He watched Christian Gómez (who was successful) and Marcelo Gallardo (who wasn’t) play for D.C. United. Javier Morales helped lead Real Salt Lake to an MLS Cup title and the CONCACAF Champions League finals and, of course, Guillermo Barros Schelotto did the league and MLS Cup MVP double here for Columbus in 2008.
Morales and Valeri overlapped briefly at Lanús, a club based just to the south of Buenos Aires. Toward the end of Valeri’s stay, which included a 2007 Primera División championship, he was coached by Schelotto. The former Crew legend took over at Lanús in 2012, the same year he helped CA Colón playmaker Federico Higuaín decide to move his family to central Ohio and sign with Schelotto’s struggling former club.
Valeri, 29, and Higuaín, 31, have become friends.
“I met him when playing against him,” Valeri said this week. “We got in touch after I arrived here. We have eaten together at home, had dinner, talked. He is a great person with a great family. We have established a relationship since I came here.”
Said Higuaín, “We get together after games, also with the rest of the Argentines [in MLS].”
It’s an expat community of some size and significance that’s had a genuine impact on the growth of the league. Argentines have won two MLS MVP awards (Gómez and Schelotto), three Newcomer of the Year awards (Mauro Rosales, Higuaín and Valeri), made eight Best XI appearances and won multiple MLS Cups. There were 28 Argentines in MLS as of September, the most from any nation outside North America.
Sunday’s MLS Cup final at MAPFRE Stadium between Columbus and visiting Portland will mark another milestone. For the first time, two Argentine enganches will lead their respective clubs into the league’s championship decider. Valeri laughed when asked on Friday about the showdown, insisting that it was Timbers defensive midfielder Diego Chará who would be matching up with Higuaín. But that’s the narrow, minute-by-minute view. Both the Timbers (17-11-11) and Crew (17-13-8), small market clubs who’ve made it this far thanks to smart spending and a balanced approach to roster construction, rely heavily on their savvy and skillful Argentine playmakers. They set the tempo, bring their teammates into the match and orchestrate the attack.
‘Enganche’ translates roughly into ‘hook’, ‘coupling’ or ‘hitch’. They’re the piece that holds the side together. Argentina has a storied tradition at the position, from Riccardo Bochini and Norberto Alonso through Diego Maradona and Juan Román Riquelme. That tradition has taken root in MLS. This season, seven of the top 10 players in key passes per game (passes that lead to a teammate’s shot) hailed from Argentina. And three of this year’s four semifinalists featured an Argentine playmaker (Mauro Díaz starred for FC Dallas). oon either Valeri or Higuaín will lift the big silver trophy, and they'll each have a massive say in its destination. Valeri has set up four of Portland’s nine playoff goals. He paced the club during the regular season with eight assists despite missing the first two months while recovering from an ACL injury. Higuaín has nine goals and 10 assists for Columbus while pulling the strings for a team that can hit an opponent from the flanks or through 25-goal man Kei Kamara up front. As the Argentines go, so may go Sunday’s final.
It wasn’t a given that two men from a city so sprawling and frenetic, in a country where fútbol means the world, would thrive in two of Major League Soccer’s least populous metro areas. But they both speak of their new homes in glowing terms and talk often of winning for their fans and their cities.
“They’ve lived in that pressure cooker, where almost the fun gets taken out of the game and I think when you look at guys like Valeri and Higuaín, you can see the little boys in them again,” Portland coach Caleb Porter told SI.com. “Being in Argentina, sometimes with the pressure and the money and the danger of it, they lose that little boy’s love of that game. That’s what makes them special. They love the ball. They love pulling plays off and that’s one of the main reasons Valeri wanted a change. He’d felt like he lost some of that love.”
In October 2012, Valeri, his wife and then three-year-old daughter were robbed at gunpoint after getting out of their car in Buenos Aires. The player already had difficulty with the fact that the atmosphere at Primera matches made it difficult for his family to attend. The robbery ratcheted up the tension. Three months later, he joined the Timbers on loan and in August 2013, he signed a contract.
“He’s playing the best football of his career,” Porter said. “He still plays under pressure, but it’s a different kind. He plays for keeps and gets the business side of it and the results side, but at the same time, that freedom is back and the love of the game is back. The overall harmony of his life and family and all those things are kind of in synch. It reignites the love, coming over here. The football is still at a high level. It’s stimulating and there’s pressure there to get results, but they’re able to bring their creativity and their imagination to the pitch in a way where they feel that freedom and love for it.”
Higuaín is married and has two children and said upon signing with Columbus in the summer of 2012 that Schelotto described Ohio’s “quiet” capital as “a family city.” In January 2015, he signed a multi-year contract extension that made him the highest-paid player in club history.
“My colleagues have made it easy from the beginning,” Higuaín said this week. “They’ve made me feel like one, like at home. The town is very nice with very friendly people. I want to spend more time with my family here.”
Crew midfielder Wil Trapp, a native of nearby Gahanna, Ohio, took a few seconds to compose himself when asked what Higuaín’s commitment to Columbus represents.
“It’s hard to put words to it,” Trapp told SI.com. “What I love so much about Pipa is his willingness and love of the game—willingness to help guys out and to accept the city for what it is. He’s bought in 100%, and that’s not something you always see with No. 10s. It’s easy for guys like that to just scoff off: ‘Oh, the team’s not doing great. It’s a small city.’ He never makes excuses. He buys in and we’re very fortunate to have him."
Higuaín has adapted well to coach Gregg Berhalter’s system—“We ask him to move all over the field and he’s not in one position, which makes him unpredictable for the opponent,” the manager said Friday—and even passed the club captaincy on to U.S. defender Michael Parkhurst a couple years ago. Higuaín has 37 goals and 33 assists in three-plus seasons in a Crew jersey.
“He has overwhelming quality on the ball. He sees passes that I can’t see sitting behind him,” Trapp said with reverence.
“We admire who he is as a player and a person and we lean on him in tough times, and to slow the game down for us,” Parkhurst said. “He always seems to be at his best when we need him, and we’ll need him on Sunday.”
Valeri plays with a bit more attacking verve and has 24 goals, 39 assists and two appearances on the league’s Best XI to show for his three seasons in Portland. He’s maintained his influence following October’s much-discussed formation switch that brought Darlington Nagbe inside and was outstanding in the second leg of the Western Conference finals against FC Dallas, especially late. Valeri put the desperate top seed on its heels time and again with incisive passes and assisted on both Portland goals. His deft, stoppage-time back-heel to fellow Argentine Lucas Melano helped cement the Timbers’ first championship game appearance since 1975.
“I knew to play the way we wanted to play that we needed a guy that could basically run the show for us—the brains of our team, the playmaker,” Porter said. “At that time [three years ago] there were a lot of 4-4-2s in the league and it seems like now, there’s this movement back to teams playing with a player in that hole, a player as the ’10’ … He’s probably one of our least athletic players but we’ve got a lot of good athletes around him and I think we’re able to play the way we play because of [Valeri’s] rhythm and creativity.”
Valeri and Higuaín play soccer the way so many fans want to see it played—with creativity, imagination, commitment and robust passion for the shirt. Those qualities aren’t limited to Argentines, but it often seems as if they perfected them. No one will mistake Sunday’s title-contending pair for Maradona or Messi, but they’ve certainly brought a welcome measure of class to the league and have been instrumental in their clubs’ quest to compete with MLS heavyweights.
Schelotto, who left Lanús last month and was rumored to be in contention for the recently-filled opening with the Chicago Fire, would be proud.
“I think he will have feelings, contradictory feelings, because he has a couple of players who he coached, Lucas [Melano] and me, and obviously [because of his ties to] Columbus. It will be strange for him, but I won’t apologize,” Valeri said Friday. “If we win, that’s it! That’s soccer!”