A splash of millionaire-salaried players under the Designated Player rule may not be the most important factor in the efforts of MLS teams to upgrade their quality. A stream of South Americans has changed
the talent level and flavor this season.
League officials are adamantly repeating that the 2007 season is about far more than David Beckham and implementation of the Designated Player rule by the Galaxy, Fire and Red Bulls.
Throughout the league, a fleet of lesser-known players is proving those officials quite right.
Much-less heralded Argentines, Colombians and Brazilians have been lighting up matches with incisive passes, driven crosses and crisp finishes to raise the level of play in ways both dramatic and subtle. Some of them are stars, some of them play supporting roles, but few of them have flamed out.
The signings of Juan Pablo Angel, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Beckham were big news, but many others have registered with their teammates, coaches and fans.
"This is the best crop of foreign players since the first years of the league, players like [Marco] Etcheverry, [Carlos] Valderrama, and those players," said Crew coach Sigi Schmid, whose acquisition of Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto is one of nearly a dozen impact players who didn't arrive as DPs.
Schmid also gives a lot of credit to Chilean defender Marcos Gonzalez, who arrived last season and has formed a solid central partnership with Chad Marshall, whose own career had flattened out following an excellent 2003 rookie campaign.
"With the exception of Schelotto and maybe Angel," says Schmid, "these players weren't nearly as well known, but in some cases they've helped their teams just as much.'
Dallas climbed atop the Western Conference thanks in part to imports Juan Carlos Toja and Pablo Richetti. D.C. United's stretches of brilliant play often stem from the combination passing of Brazilians Luciano Emilio and Fred and Bolivian veteran Jaime Moreno. Kansas City's revival owes much to Argentine midfielder Carlos Marinelli, and coach Curt Onalfo is counting on August signing Eloy Colombano to contribute as well.
"We played against him during our preseason trip to Argentina," recalls Onalfo of Colombano, "and he basically tore us a new ***hole. He was really impressive. That's how we discovered him and now we feel like we have some relationships with clubs down there and it's a pretty good setup.
"Our league isn't as technical, but players from the Argentine league are a good fit. If you watch the top teams in Argentina, technically they're just so good. But it's also become a more physical league."
Toja, who just turned 22, epitomizes the melding of skill and power. A tall, lean Colombian whose mane of curly black hair is already readily recognized by MLS fans, leads the league in fouls yet is also one of its best passers.
"I didn't know anything about him and the first time I saw him, I loved him," says Onalfo, whose scouting of players is helped by fluency in Spanish gained while playing in Mexico for Second Division club Tampico Madera. "He's extremely technical in his passing but he's also a very hard worker. He's a complete player. Guys like him and Carlos and some of the other players just make the league better with their passing and their passion."
After swinging some trades to bring in talent from other MLS teams, Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis used a break from MLS play to observe three Argentines he'd spotted while scouting talent earlier in the season: Edgar Espindola, Javier Morales and Matias Mantilla. He was planning on having at least two of them for the remainder of the season.
GOING FOR GOMEZ. Many coaches point to the acquisition of Argentine Christian Gomez late in the 2004 season as triggering a fresh influx of South American players, those who have given up or at least tabled their aspirations of going to Europe or playing for a major South American club.
"Gomez having success with our team and at least our team demonstrating that it's credible in competitions like Sudamericana and CONCACAF Champions Cup, that starts to make it all right for players from Argentina to come here," says D.C. president and general manager Kevin Payne. "Seven or eight years ago, you'd have only gotten guys like Mario Gori or Alberto Naveda, who no longer had options in Argentina at all."
Gomez came to MLS after bouncing among four clubs, including Independiente, which doesn't carry the cachet of Boca Juniors or River Plate yet commands a fervent fan base in Buenos Aires and plays in a stadium that can hold 68,000.
"Independiente is a big club, and Gomez had a good career down there," says Payne. "He scored 23 goals one year for Nueva Chicago as a midfielder, then won a championship with Independiente.
"But they have such a wealth of players down there that it's not at all uncommon to have pretty accomplished guys at 26, 27 years old finding themselves not getting the kind of contract they want because clubs have a whole bunch of real young guys behind them who are just as good and will play for next to nothing in their first contract."
Gomez took some criticism for being out of shape when he joined D.C., yet his touch and poise proved to be the final piece in a championship team at D.C. in 2004. In the past two seasons, he scored 25 goals and added 20 assists, yet United stumbled out of the playoffs short of MLS Cup.
To shore up his team and buttress the offensive exploits of Gomez and Moreno, United this time looked to Brazil. Fred came to MLS after helping Melbourne Victory win the Australian league title, and Emilio arrived from Honduras.
Emilio produced goals right away, netting for D.C. in the CONCACAF Champions Cup during preseason, and after a brief lull in league play, he resumed his scoring. His 13 goals led MLS with two months left in the season.
Fred struggled to adapt to MLS and seemed out of place on the right, Freddy Adu's former position. His tendency to drift into the middle sometimes yielded effective passes and through balls but often unbalanced his team. Yet halfway through the season the pieces began fitting more snugly and D.C. rose up the standings in the Eastern Conference while playing some of the slickest soccer seen in MLS for several years.
Through a web of professional contacts, individuals connected to MLS and U.S. Soccer, and relationships formed over the years, players find their way north to MLS.
"We've got three or four agencies that we work with," says Payne. "The league has retained Alejandro Tarciac, who used to work at the league and went back down to Argentina to start an agency of his own. He's assisting the league office now. And teams like Columbus, they work with the same agencies we work with - not all of them but they know a couple of them - so I think we'll see more teams looking to that market. I just think you can get better players at better prices."
In the case of Toja, an agency representing players contacted clubs that he was out of contract. He'd been loaned to River Plate by Colombian club Santa Fe, and despite having played impressively for the Colombian U-20 team in the South American qualifying tournament and the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup, neither club wanted to keep him.
The big-money deals - Angel, Blanco, Beckham, Claudio Reyna - attract the most notice, but all teams search anxiously for players who can be acquired for small fees or as free agents.
"I knew him already from seeing him play for our national team," says FC Dallas assistant coach Oscar Pareja, who himself came to MLS from Colombia to play for New England in 1999. "When I saw him on a list of players, I got his phone number and we had a direct communication with Juan and his mom.
"He told me he wanted to go to play for the team and if he did good, the money will come afterwards. But he wanted to prove to himself and everybody else that he could play. That was a great cue for me, that made me know that Juan was going to be a good signing for the team, and the connection of me being from Colombia and played for FC Dallas helped, too."
Toja will earn $100,008 this season and the Argentine Richetti, $120,000. Marinelli is on $165,000. Emilio ($265,000) and Fred ($190,008) are on the high end of this year's non-DP imports. So far, Schelotto, who led the Crew in goals (four) and assists (eight) with two months left in the season, is a great bargain at $150,000.
Those are certainly bargains compared to salaries paid by Toronto FC for Carl Robinson ($300,000) and Andy Welsh ($195,000).
"Richetti was different, he was older  and had played for some big teams," says Pareja of stints in Spain (Real Valladolid) and Argentina (River Plate). "He knew about our league and said he wanted to play here."
The availability of players for such salaries is usually dependent on teams offering allocation money as a signing bonus, or other compensation. A major allocation is worth $250,000, a minor allocation $100,000, and teams are allowed to split up allocations or combine them.
Allocation money can only be used to re-sign players already on a team's roster or acquire new ones. A source said that D.C. spent about $400,000 in allocation money to get Fred and Emilio.
Payne also believes the chaotic financial situation in many countries has made MLS, where the paychecks may not be huge but at least they arrive on time, more attractive to players from South America. "Christian came in one day and mentioned how great it was to be paid in full and on time," laughs Payne. "Everybody thought he was joking but a lot of those clubs either can't or don't pay their players when they should, and it can be a huge problem. Sometimes a player will be released because the club can't pay him."
Players from Central American and the Caribbean have made their mark in MLS - Carlos Ruiz, Raul Diaz Arce, Damani Ralph, Stern John, Amado Guevara, Ronald Cerritos, Tyrone Marshall - and Mexican products like Francisco Palencia, Juan Pablo Garcia, Carlos Hermosillo and Luis Hernandez can succeed but for the most part are too expensive.
"There are very few guys who could come in and make an impact," says Onalfo, who assisted Bruce Arena with the national team before taking the Wizards' job. "Bruce and I know players from CONCACAF better than anybody. We studied them for four years.
"Of course, there are the Ruizes and stuff. But there are very few guys down there who can come in and make an impact. MLS is an extremely athletic league and it's gotten better."
Pareja knows how difficult can be the transition to a new country and new culture as well as a new team and a new league. He arrived in America unable to speak English and after a difficult few months was traded to Dallas, where he has stayed to work as a coach and raise his family. He says coaches must get a feel for the player's personality and his commitment to
"They want to come and help the league, and obviously helping the league and playing well will help them as well," says Pareja.
(This article originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)