Why you should care
Because American soccer is going global.
Miguel Almirón moves in the middle of the field with the ball on his feet, showcasing the type of flair that South American soccer players are known to naturally possess. A baby-faced Paraguayan who looks younger than his 23 years, Almirón places a perfect pass to teammate Josef Martínez, a Venezuelan striker, also 23, who controls the ball before rounding the opposing goalkeeper and slotting it in the back of the net.
Similar goal sequences from talented young stars take place every week in South America, where soccer, or fútbol, dominates the sports culture. This particular play between Almirón and Martínez, however, occurred this spring at Atlanta’s Bobby Dodd Stadium, home of Major League Soccer’s new club, Atlanta United. “I knew I was going to learn a lot, and I knew it would be a great experience for me,” says Almirón, who joined the MLS club after winning Argentina’s Primera División title with Lanús in 2016. “I came here to keep growing my career and get to the highest level of the sport.”
We might not be the top choice, but we’re still bringing top foreign players.
Óscar Pareja, head coach, FC Dallas
Almirón and Martínez are the latest additions to a surprising trend — young international soccer stars who opt to ply their trade in North America, bringing with them a level of play that wasn’t part of soccer here as recently as 10 years ago. “It used to be that older players came into the league,” says MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott. “What we’re seeing now is great young players coming in.”
The incentives? State-of-the-art stadiums, an improving level of play and consistent club expansion — 22 franchises in 2017, with plans to field 28 teams by 2020. In 2015, it was Italian attacker Sebastian Giovinco, 28, who made news around the world after leaving Turin’s Serie A side Juventus in the prime of his career to join Toronto FC. He was followed by Uruguayan star Nicolás Lodeiro, 27, who signed in 2016 with the Seattle Sounders.
And then there’s the money. According to the MLS Players Union, Almirón will earn $2.3 million in guaranteed compensation in 2017, making him the highest-paid player on the Atlanta roster. (The next highest, Martínez, will make slightly more than $1 million.) Giovinco will haul in $7.1 million this year in guaranteed income; Lodeiro, $1.7 million. “As the league has become more successful from a commercial perspective,” Abbott says, “we’re able to offer attractive economic opportunities to young players that perhaps we might not have been able to offer 10 or 15 years ago.”
To be sure, pro soccer in North America still lags behind some of its European counterparts. The supremacy of Spain’s La Liga, the English Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga makes Europe the most desired destination for players around the world. “It’s still very difficult to sign top talent because those types of players attract interest from European clubs,” admits FC Dallas head coach Óscar Pareja.
Pareja argues that MLS is still a very young league — its first season was in 1996 — and should be proud to compete for talent against much older organizations like the Premier League, which has been operating for more than a century. “We might not be the top choice, but we’re still bringing top foreign players,” he says. “We’ve taken steps forward, and it’s important to notice it.”
MLS’ current approach differs greatly from its original tactic of signing recognized stars past their prime, a practice that earned the circuit the dubious distinction of being a “retirement league.” Kristel Valencia, editor-in-chief of FutbolMLS.com, explains: “Ten to 15 years ago, the league was searching for big-name veteran players with the hopes that their international experience would help elevate the level [of play] on the field. At the same time, the expectation was that those famous names would resonate with the fan base since they were well-known players internationally.”
Hence the signings in the ’90s of World Cup veterans such as Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos and Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama, both of whom were over 30 and no longer in their prime. It wasn’t until the LA Galaxy surprised the soccer world in 2007 by signing English star David Beckham at age 32 that things started to take a turn. Other clubs followed suit and imported impact players, including Argentine legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto (Columbus Crew), Mexican forward Cuauhtémoc Blanco (Chicago Fire) and French World Cup winner Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls).
Another twist to the renewed popularity of North American soccer: Players like Almirón see the MLS as a way to battle for coveted spots on their countries’ national teams. “One of the aspects they appreciate most is having consistent playing time,” says Valencia. “That consistency is key for international players looking to keep a spot in their national squads.”
Almirón has adjusted quickly to the league, starting eight of Atlanta’s nine games and recording two goals and four assists. His adaptation process has been seamless, helped by the presence of Martínez and other South American teammates, including a pair of Argentines, winger Héctor Villalba and midfielder Yamil Asad. “[They] are great players, and they also make things easier inside of the field,” says Almirón, who recently took a road test for his American driver’s license and remains focused on learning English. “I was very happy in Argentina and I wasn’t really thinking about moving, but once I started discovering Atlanta United, I became more resolute in my intention to join the team.”
Surrounded by a supporting cast of improved players, Almirón is convinced that his choice to move to the United States to play the game he loves was the right one.