MLS: Second Wave of Argentines

A survivor of many passionate, sometimes fierce, battles in league and cup matches for Boca Juniors, Guillermo Barros Schelotto has angered the likes of Toronto FC coach John Carver by his posturing and diving, and he has yet to utter a complimentary word about MLS referees.

He's also tormented MLS defenses numerous times with precise chips, incisive through balls and deadly set plays and won midfield duels with fierce tackles. By moving thousands of miles north to trade Boca blue-and-yellow for Middle America black-and-gold, Schelotto left behind more than a decade of passion and glory to toil in a league still occasionally referred to as "MSL," even in a wildly more visible era marked by the arrival of David Beckham.

"Every day it's better, but it's very different with Argentina," says Schelotto, who left Boca last summer to sign with MLS and has a rudimentary command of English. "But I like the soccer, I like the city, I like the people, I am very good here."

He has brought guile and flair to America's "Hardest Working Team," which itself symbolizes a gritty persona that the league is trying to shed, layer by layer, by importing larger numbers of foreign players, most of them South American, and many of those Argentine.

Steeped in toughness and schooled in skill, exported by the hundreds to dozens of countries and many of the world's biggest clubs, Argentine players possess the qualities that are vital to flourish in foreign lands.

"He's an aggressive game player," Columbus right back Frankie Hejduk, who has tangled with many top-tier players during more than a decade of play for his club teams as well as the USA, says of Schelotto. "He comes to play. There's a reason he was a legend at Boca. He's a great addition to our team and has made a world of difference for us."

Yet to be determined is if Marcelo Gallardo (D.C. United), Carlos Marinelli, Eloy Colombano and Claudio Lopez (Kansas City), Matias Mantilla, Javier Morales, Fabian Espdinola and Matias Cordoba (Real Salt Lake), and others can not only transform the image of MLS but make a difference for their teams. With an increased allotment of eight international players per team, not all of them will start, or even stick on a roster past the contract guarantee date of July 1. But the track record of Argentines leaving home is a good one, partly because they know the value of landing in the right spot and squaring away the personal side of a move.

"I try to find the best place where I want to be, and I've managed to do that everywhere I go," says Lopez, whose impressive resume lists Racing in his native country and Valencia and Lazio as well as Club America in Mexico. "As far as picking a favorite, I don't have a favorite, because I tend to find a place where I can be comfortable and adapt easily. Besides family, I like to fish, I like to hunt, and hang out with friends and eating out. That's always fun."

NEW WAVE. Argentines first came to MLS in its early years but other South Americans, such as Carlos Valderrama, Oscar Pareja and Leonel Alvarez (Colombia), Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno (Bolivia) and Eduardo Hurtado (Ecuador) were usually far more influential. The talented Argentines who couldn't make it to Europe either stayed in their native country or were snapped up by teams in Mexico or Central America. The recent arrivals have changed all that.

"The thing that I say about him is there's no one better in the league at the weight of the pass of a ball," says Hejduk of Schelotto. "You notice it in practice, being with him every day. There's no one that does it better since I've been in the league. The closest guys, maybe, Valderrama or  Etcheverry. He's right up there with them for sure."
By nabbing Christian Gomez from Arsenal di Sarandi during the 2004 season, D.C. United found the missing piece for a team that was already very good, and with Gomez setting up and scoring goals in an attacking midfield role, D.C. won its fourth MLS Cup.

A rather dreary procession of Argentine players passed through MLS before Gomez arrived: Sergio Miguez, Silvio Rudman, Daniel Peinado, Marcelo Herrera, Leonardo Squadrone and Alejandro Farias, among others. Some of them, like ballyhooed "King of Goals" Sergio Galvan Rey, arrived with great fanfare, flopped in MLS, then returned to South America and restored their former glory. Galvan Rey had talent, so what was missing?

"I think in a lot of different leagues the soccer has been kind of evolving into this style of play we're used to seeing here, a lot more running and defending," says Gallardo, blessed with finesse he has honed during stints with River Plate, Monaco and Paris St. Germain. "I think it's going to continue to evolve to a place where running and defending can go together with a more attacking and more thinking mentality, a physical and tactical style.

"I think it's going to be really good for soccer to evolve into that, where you can combine both aspects and give the fans a really good show."

D.C. fans, though, weren't much impressed by the Gallardo Show during the first few months of the season. The team had shuttled Gomez off to Colorado rather than pay him a maximum salary and signed Gallardo as a Designated Player at a salary of $1.9 million. Through April, May and June, Gallardo didn't come close to making the same impact as fellow DPs David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, the only two players ahead of him on the salary list. Yet he wasn't the only player struggling as D.C. adapted to life without Ben Olsen (injured), Brian Carroll and Gomez (traded), Josh Gros (retired) and Troy Perkins (transferred).

"I knew it wasn't going to be easy for him," says Moreno, who went through his own growing pains after arriving from English club Middlesbrough at age 23 in the middle of the 1997 season and is the league's all-time leading scorer.

"There are a lot of things you have to adapt to. He's settled down with a house and his kids are going to school, so I think with that part of it everything is OK.

"He's done a good job to do whatever the coach has been asking. He's a good guy to have around in the locker room and with all his experience hopefully we get a championship."

NORMALCY. MLS may lack the majestic stadiums and elegant play found in Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany and Portugal, and the fervent support endemic to many countries, but enjoying a quiet life away from soccer is something many foreign pros are experiencing for the first time.

"We immediately took a liking to what we saw and we've adjusted fairly well," says Marinelli, who came to MLS as a discovery player in April 2007, after stints in England, Italy and Portugal as well as his native land. "It's a really quiet way of living. We saw that the team was going in the right direction and we started doing things that everybody does.

"My daughter started going to school here recently, and we just hang out like everybody else, watch TV, especially the Argentine channels."

Being hounded by adoring fans, stalked by paparazzi or abused by disgruntled supporters is more than inconvenience; it can be annoying and draining and with children in tow, frightening. A smashed car window isn't unheard of.

"Boca is the better life in Argentina and it is very beautiful playing for Boca," says Schelotto, "but life in Buenos Aires is crazy. Here I am relaxed, take it easy. But Boca and football in Argentina is very fanatical. Here is very good for me and my family, too."

Lopez, also a DP at big money ($820,000 guaranteed), scored just three goals in his first 11 games as Kansas City fell to last place in the Eastern Conference. Those three goals tied him for the team lead, but so anemic has been the Wizards attack that his co-leader was defender Jimmy Conrad. Lopez cites a heavy diet of road games in the first half of the season as one reason for the team's struggles but has no complaints off the field.

"I started following MLS a few years ago and there were a couple of reasons," says Lopez. "When I was with [Club] America, I had the chance to come up and play games here, and it got my attention even more, because I really got to see for myself the style of soccer and people's attitudes. What caught my eye most was the lifestyle of the U.S. That interested me in coming in this direction."

Lopez and Marinelli usually rush off after training to pick up their children from day care. Gallardo has mastered, somewhat, driving from his home in McLean, Va., through Washington, D.C. and its bewildering array of streets intersecting at all angles. His oldest son Nahuel plays for a local team. His English is limited but he's learning.

"I haven't really gotten lost yet," says Gallardo, whose wife, Alejandra, grew up in a household devoted to Boca, which meant Gallardo had to endure passionate rants from her father every time he visited her. "But I have a very good visual memory so I can remember how to get somewhere."

Gallardo's own father voraciously followed many sports, not just soccer, and Gallardo lives much the same, somewhat like an American who can flip TV channels between sports depending on his mood and what's on.

"Ever since I was young, I've always watched every kind of sports," he says. "One of my favorites is watching the NBA, and of course Michael Jordan is one of the greatest ever in any sport, so I always enjoyed watching him.

"My father used to record boxing matches and we would watch them together all the time. He was a huge, huge fan of Cassius Clay [Muhammad Ali], and so I was also a fan of his. In tennis, I've always liked Pete Sampras, and I like to play golf, too, so I watch a lot of sports."

COMMON THREAD. If there's a common thread to the new breed of MLS Argentines, in addition to talent, it may be acclimation, not just to a new team and a new league, but a new culture, a new lifestyle.
"Speaking for Argentineans, it's definitely our adaptability that brings us to other countries," says Marinelli. "There are well-known players from Brazil and Paraguay and other countries who are bred to play this game in a certain way. If you love the game, you want to adapt so you can play at your best. We focus on our technique, and we are tough, and we are definitely known around the world for that."

(This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.

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