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MLS Target Signings Trend Toward the Rising South American Star

There are many reasons for the glaring offseason trend of MLS teams focusing their transfer efforts on signing young, rising South American talents as opposed to the European stars of yesteryear. We take a deep look at the league's new target player.

When Yeferson Quintana, the 6-foot-4 center back from Bella Unión, Uruguay, signed with the San Jose Earthquakes on a season-long loan deal from powerhouse Peñarol earlier this year, his first thought was opportunity.

“For me, as a 21-year-old, to come here was something I really wanted, because I wanted to showcase what I have,” he told from his first MLS training camp. “I think MLS is very appealing, and for a player like me, the experience of being here and playing the game is just wonderful.”

As young as he is, his resume is impressive. Having made 29 appearances, both in the league and Copa Libertadores, Quintana won the Uruguayan league title last season and cemented his status as a young star in the making.

“Yeferson comes from an important club in Uruguay, that has won the championship and plays in Copa Libertadores,” Earthquakes general manager Jesse Fioranelli said. “He’s been there for an entire season, playing as a starter and for him this is an opportunity to take on MLS and gain experience while he’s on a loan with the opportunity for us to bind him on a longer-term commitment.”

Mikael Stahre, San Jose’s new manager, also believes Quintana can make an immediate contribution.

“Yeferson is a really good football player. His size, first of all, makes him really powerful. He’s really good in the air, able to mark his man in the box and from my point of view he’s a pure defender, able to protect our goal.”

As both men describe Quintana’s characteristics while breaking down the depth of Uruguay’s Primera Division, they spell out the continued recognition of a growing trend. MLS is finding a fresh appreciation for young South American talent perhaps unfamiliar to an MLS audience, and its clubs are seeking these players to improve the quality of rosters across the board. So far this winter, the league has welcomed 29 players on a permanent or temporary deals from South America. 

Given the interest on the continent’s talent pool, combined with the growth of MLS–both financially and geographically–it's clear that there are ample reasons for this strategy and that clubs' assessment of young, South American players and this wave of talent entering the league represent a way of the present and the future.

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When David Beckham signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007 and changed the landscape of MLS, his arrival impacted the league’s financial and transfer structure. The Designated Player rule caused a ripple effect, causing other teams to react and acquire star players outside the typical salary cap restrictions.

Through the years, though, MLS teams' philosophies of bringing in newcomers were focused so heavily on aging and name-brand star power–or clubs largely paying way more than their European counterparts in order for U.S. national team stars to feature at home–that, for the most part, clubs didn't immediately look first for young talent from Latin America.

It’s not to say that the league never paid attention to the region. Throughout the years, players like Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, Javier Morales, Juan Pablo Angel, Federico Higuain, Ignacio Piatti and 2017 MVP Diego Valeri are all examples of such talent influencing soccer culture in America. But they arrived either with an established reputation, a certain amount of international experience or, more importantly, not at an age when the best days were still to come. Primarily, it was about strengthening the squad and the brand as opposed to discovering and cultivating young talent.

The majority of new players entering the league in recent years was not exactly made up of young prospects. According to MLS statistics, between 2008 and 2015 the average age of league newcomers after the end of the previous regular season hovered around 27. This may not be an ancient number, but in soccer terms, it’s the start of the downside of a player’s peak and not the time when one develops.

Over the last couple of seasons, the trend started to change. The league was already beginning to shed its moniker as a retirement home for well-known but worn-out stars like Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard. Now, the rise of the young, Latin American Designated Player has grabbed the spotlight, something Atlanta United embraced in its impressive inaugural season. That's not to say that older players are totally ignored. Last season's Golden Boot winner, Nemanja Nikolic, joined the Chicago Fire at 29. LAFC centerpiece Carlos Vela is 28. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, at 36, continues to be linked to the LA Galaxy. But by and large, the focus has sharpened, and the average age of new signings has dipped by over two years.

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The new crop of South American talent signed this offseason has an average age of about 22. The most highly touted players, Atlanta United’s Ezequiel Barco (18), LAFC's Diego Rossi (19), Orlando City's Josue Colman (19) and NYCFC’s Jesus Medina (20), come in well below that. Even more, Barco commanded a $15 million transfer fee, shattering the previous MLS record. 

Other signings from the region include the Columbus Crew's Milton Valenzuela, a 19-year-old defensive standout who came from Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina, and the Houston Dynamo's Alejandro Fuenmayor from Carabobo FC in Venezuela. At 21, the center back has already accumulated more than 70 first-team professional appearances.

“I think the league is looking at the South and Central American market, because they can find good, interesting players for good prices, but at the same time, leave room for development,” new Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said.

Savarese, a 46-year-old former Venezuela international who enters his first season as an MLS manager after leaving NASL’s New York Cosmos, has Peruvian winger Andy Polo and Paraguayan midfielder Cristhian Paredes in the fold at Providence Park.

Polo and Paredes arrived on loan from Liga MX’s Morelia and Club America, respectively, and Savarese believes that they provide multiple benefits.

“These players can give the club what they’re looking for, but also an eye on revalue and the future," Savarese said. "The most important thing is that these are good players for the right price.”

Atlanta United’s Miguel Almirón, a star signing last winter, also believes that MLS’s popularity in South and Central America is a major reason why there is a stronger chain of communication between MLS clubs and these transfer targets.

“The league keeps growing, and it’s a good thing," he said. "Latin players see the league in a different light now, due to the competitive environment–that’s why they are coming. I also think the league’s infrastructure–the stadiums, pitches–all of this combines for an attractive package for South American players.”

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Almirón, who was part of the 2017 MLS Best XI and is the reigning Newcomer of the Year, is a major part of the continued bubbling of a movement that has taken off in recent months. 

“I imagine that this interest in South American talent has a lot to do with what we (Atlanta United) did last season,” says Josef Martinez, Atlanta United’s Venezuelan star forward. “But it’s also about other teams and other Latin players and what they did, so it’s clear that a good strategy is to mix experienced and young Latinos–something teams are now looking for.”

The continued evolution in the league's financial structure has played a large role as well. Thanks to the increase in Target Allocation Money (TAM) around the league, clubs have been able to strengthen their rosters and target these types of players, some of whom command sizable transfer fees. Aside from the $1.2 million of TAM provided in 2018 and 2019, clubs are able to spend an additional $2.8 million on a discretionary basis, thus allowing a further increase in player acquisition. Add that to select owners willing to open their pockets, and a new category of player has been given a more streamlined path to the league.

“Having more resources to our disposal, it opens up the possibility to focus on markets that are typically known as exporting markets, and they exist in Europe as much as they exist in South America,” Fioranelli said. “And now we’re in a position where we're scouting more heavily, so this opens a new channel that we can focus in on and bring promising talents to MLS. Having now the possibility to fall back onto TAM money and discretionary TAM money, this has put us in a position to focus on younger talent rather than aging players.”

Head coaches, therefore, along with their scouting departments, are beginning to fully realize that when it comes to value, South America is the ultimate destination.

“I think the prices of South American talent are probably favorable,” says Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Carl Robinson, who last season led his team to the Western Conference semifinals with a roster deep in Latin American talent. “There are thousands and thousands of talent in South America that are just waiting for an opportunity. And I think teams are doing their homework now, and they’re realizing that if they try and sign a young player from Europe he probably earns four or five times more than a Central or South American earns–and these players want to be coached. They love football. And I want to work with players like that, because they know the game and you can use that to your advantage. I’m certainly excited by young, Hispanic players.”

It would be naive to suggest that this new blood of Latin American talent sees MLS as the one, only and final destination. If anything, many of these players enter the league knowing full well this is a stepping-stone in a long career.

Quintana, for one, admitted that he sees a larger picture, while players like Almirón, Medina and Barco have been linked to the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, Inter Milan and other European giants.

“I think that if I have the ability to showcase my skills here, I can perhaps see myself in the Premier League or La Liga,” Quintana said. “But first I have to focus fully here in MLS and then later look at other opportunities.”

The notion that this might be a negative should largely be discarded, because becoming a stepping-stone league or a feeder league is also another way of capitalizing on a growing export market. Europe can now see MLS as a place to buy from, not just one to where it can sell or send its aging out-of-contract talent. European powers can see North American clubs as more regular and viable partners in substantial transfer acquisitions (see Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla from Montreal to Barcelona). If the addition of South American talents can help, then the league will be better for it, and the record outgoing transfer fee set by Jozy Altidore's $10 million move to Villarreal in 2008 will become a transaction seen with more regularity. Just this past fall, Atlanta reportedly turned down a $20-25 million fee for Almiron and a $10 million fee for Martinez from unnamed European clubs. Should the club cash in, for example, it could reinvest in more talent akin to those players while reaping a profit, and the cycle goes on from there.

“MLS is growing at a crazy rate, and every player wants to play at the highest possible level," Robinson said. "I think it’s now a breeding brand for young players to come over and see what North American soccer is all about and obviously a number of teams have taken an advantage to that."

Teams also understand that another important element is the need to engage with their respective Hispanic communities, and a bigger South American contingent on the roster can set a stronger connection between fan and franchise.

“We notice that there’s a lot of attention from the Hispanic fan base also because we’ve been laying focus and emphasis on Hispanic players in the first team that come from our academy with San Jose roots,” Fioranelli said. “Gilbert Fuentes is a player that excites many people in this area, for example.”

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Players across the league also feel the importance of representation as a way of building a stronger connection. Kendall Waston, Vancouver’s stalwart Costa Rican center back, is excited for Efrain Juarez, the Mexican midfielder who arrived this offseason from Monterrey.

“I know there are a lot of Mexicans here in Vancouver, so Efrain’s presence is great for that,” Waston said. “He’ll feel the support, the same with [23-year-old Venezuelan striker] Anthony Blondell and the Venezuelan community, as he’ll feel at home. And that’s important for the fans to show the support and equally for the team to deliver.”

The effect also has an influence internationally, as these South American players influence the league’s reputation, both on and off the pitch.

“In Paraguay, people are watching the league in a different way due to more arrivals of Paraguayan players in MLS,” Almirón said. “Every year, this league is going to keep improving.”

Ultimately, the shift and interest in Latin American talent is both a technical and cultural investment, and it's clear the emphasis lies in value. That's not to say that every signing will be a success. Adapting to a new league and new culture isn't for everyone, and plenty of would-be top signings have failed to meet expectations before. But MLS clubs appear to be casting a net around a specific breed of rising talent. And if an 18-year-old attacking midfielder from Argentina or a 21-year-old Uruguayan defender becomes a 10-, five- or even two-season contributor, clubs can build a stronger present while securing the likelihood of an even brighter future should things work out as intended.