LOS ANGELES, United States, Feb 28 – A new generation of South American players will be on display as Major League Soccer kicks off its 2018 season this weekend, highlighting the growing attractiveness of the competition as a destination for emerging talent.
More than a decade after David Beckham’s move to Los Angeles was followed by the arrival of several fading European stars, MLS teams are increasingly looking to South America to strengthen their rosters.
More than 60 South American players will be sprinkled across MLS this year, many of whom are still in the early stages of their career, hoping to use the league as a stepping stone to bigger things.
Miguel Almiron, the 24-year-old Paraguayan international striker, is preparing for a second season with expansion side Atlanta United after a successful debut campaign for the club in 2017.
Almiron, who scored nine goals in 30 games, has attracted interest from several European clubs, with Inter Milan, Arsenal and Newcastle all reportedly monitoring his form in recent months.
The Paraguayan has made no secret of his desire to use MLS as a springboard for an eventual move across the Atlantic.
“It’s a bridge to Europe,” he told reporters at a recent media day in Los Angeles.
“The league is being watched so much around the world. My objective ever since I was at Lanus is to go to Europe.”
Almiron’s strike partner at Atlanta, the 24-year-old Venezuelan international Josef Martinez, is similarly unambiguous about the long-term objective.
“If you perform well here, you have a chance to go to Europe, so you welcome that opportunity,” Martinez said.
Both Almiron and Martinez are developing under the tutelage of former Argentina and Barcelona manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who steered Atlanta to the playoffs last year in their maiden MLS campaign.
– ‘Excellent opportunity’ –
Martino was instrumental in securing the services of another rising South American talent, the 18-year-old Ezequiel Barco.
Barco, who has made eight appearances for Argentina’s under-20s, joined Atlanta from Independiente in an MLS-record $15 million transfer last month.
Barco’s capture represents something of a coup both for Atlanta and MLS. In previous eras, the young Argentine would almost certainly have headed directly to Europe rather than take a career detour in North America.
Bob Bradley, the former United States and Swansea coach who will take the helm of expansion side Los Angeles FC in their debut season, said the South American influx indicates MLS is on the right trajectory.
LAFC themselves are hoping to have recruited their own South American gem in the shape of 19-year-old Diego Rossi, who has joined from newly crowned Uruguay champions Penarol.
“As MLS has grown, I think a lot of these young players realise that it’s an excellent opportunity to come and build a name, in some cases to use it as an opportunity to maybe move onto another league,” Bradley told AFP.
“Or it can be simply because this is where they want to be. Anybody who has spent any time in South America knows there is amazing talent there. It’s no secret. For MLS to get these young players to come here, it shows that the league has moved in the right direction.”
Federico Higuain, the elder brother of Juventus and Argentina star Gonzalo Higuain, says the arrival of young talents like Barco reflects the maturity of MLS, where Atlanta attracted an average crowd of 48,200 fans per game last season.
“Around the world, people are looking at this league growing up very fast,” said Higuain, who has played for Columbus Crew since 2012.
“Players want to come here. If anyone asks me about the league, I say ‘Yes, come. You will enjoy it and you will love it,” the 33-year-old added.
Higuain also believes MLS provides a relative refuge from the pressure-cooker atmosphere of many domestic leagues in South America.
“A good thing about the league is nobody bothers you,” Higuain said. “The pressure is a little bit lower. I’m not saying there is no pressure. But in other countries, the pressure is very crazy.”