Surely by now, we’ve all heard that sound bite when Gonzalo Higuain said, “I thought I could play in MLS with a cigarette in my mouth.” I know I rolled my eyes.
But rather than simply reminding me of outdated beliefs in MLS being a retirement league, it reminds me of other comments I’ve come across regarding the differences between leagues – prior to the Euro 2020 Final one of the commentators predicted (and I’m doing my best to recall his exact words) that if the match was decided by athleticism, England would win. If tactics and strategy decided the match, Italy would win.
Which reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a coaching friend who had played collegiately at Creighton against some future MLS players. When I asked him what stood out the most to him about those future MLS players, he replied immediately: their athleticism. I remember raising an eyebrow. Not their skill? Not their savvy? No, he said. “Athleticism – they’re on another level.” And this was from my friend who could run circles around me on the soccer field while lamenting that he wasn’t fit anymore.
While the level of play has risen in MLS over the last fifteen years, athleticism is still integral to playing in this league. And along with athleticism is physicality. Paxton Pomykal is one of the most fouled players in the league. As Mauro Diaz and David Ferreira were before him. We all know this – though, in my eagerness to discuss tactics and skills, I sometimes forget how hard this league can be on skilled players.
I was listening to the 3rd Degree podcast yesterday and Buzz Carrick was commenting that Freddy Vargas looked out of shape (and had similarly been out of shape in the preseason). It’s that athleticism issue. When I recall all the times that Jader Obrian has gone to ground too easily, I am reminded of the physicality of the league. Doesn’t matter how fast he is – he’s not getting those calls in MLS. He’s bodied off the ball and dispossessed.
This past week as Thomas Roberts departed for Austria, I kept wondering why he’d never really gotten a run of games with FC Dallas. He’d had training stints with Bayern and they had an interest in signing him. I trust that they know what they’re doing (at least more so than I trust Dallas at the moment). Reports said Roberts was tearing it up in practice. But after seeing his picture all over social media, I went looking for some information... Thomas Roberts – listed at 5’ 11” & 150 lbs.
Just a bit of comparison
First, let me note that I didn’t look at every player’s weight. Also, I include Mauro Diaz on my list because I don’t want to be overly simplistic and suggest that a smaller player can’t be successful in MLS. Clearly, it happens. But we also know that size is incredibly advantageous to a professional athlete, and a physical league will be hard on smaller players, so the smaller player needs to learn to be more elusive. Hopefully, Thomas will get a chance to learn that in Austria. And hopefully, as his body matures, he is better able to fend off the opposition.
And, of course, Obrian’s 137 made my eyes pop. No wonder Tessman looks like a tank.
But here, my friends is where I went down the proverbial rabbit hole, and this will be an awkward transition in my train of thought.
In pursuit of this question of athleticism and physicality, I looked at Dallas’ foreign signings from the last several years – specifically where we got them (so I’m not looking at Urruti because he came from Portland, not Argentina [nor am I looking at Jara because... why bother?]):
|Andres Ricaurte||Independiente Medellin/Colombia|
|Freddy Vargas||Deportivo Lara/Venezuela|
|Jader Obrian||Aguila Dorados/Colombia|
|Reto Ziegler||FC Luzern/Switzerland|
|Zdenek Ondrasek||Wisla Krakow/Poland|
|Szabolcs Schon||MTK Budapest/Hungary|
Now, before I get going, let me first say that the only South American soccer that I watch is in the international tournaments – so if you are more knowledgeable than I am, I will be looking for your comments below. But I couldn’t help but notice how many poor signings we have from South American leagues.
I’ve heard that bit about typical Dallas signings – easy on the pocketbook, high on potential. That’s why teams shop in South America, right? Buy inexpensive players and hope to flip them. Brazilian and Argentine players have a higher premium on them because they are Brazil and Argentina, but there are budget-friendly diamonds in the rough to be found throughout the continent. After all, club icon Oscar Pareja came from Independiente Medellin and Deportivo Cali in Colombia.
Well, have you heard of Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas? People literally go there every day - sometimes several thousand people – to find diamonds in the rough. Just lying on the ground. And on average, one person finds a diamond every day. The same thing is happening in South America. Every team in the world is looking for young players to flip (it’s been years since a Bayern player moved from the academy to the first team permanently – the vast majority are sold. Flipping young players is their model for every kid they get from us). FC Dallas is one of the hundreds of teams scouring Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, and Venezuela. Even USL teams are searching in South America. To put it in terms of Crater of Diamonds, Argentina beats us to the park every morning - they come before dawn. Italian side Udinese slips in a sunrise. We’re trying our best but we enter when the park opens at nine and we’re not even first at the gate.
Radamel Falcao – star forward for Colombia for the last decade – began his career at River Plate. In Argentina. James Rodriguez left Colombia for Argentina when he was sixteen. Juan Cuadrado was a late bloomer and left Independiente Medellin for Italian side Udinese when he was twenty. Chilean star Alexis Sanchez played for River Plate. There are exceptions. But clearly, there is also a trend.
1) Argentina and Brazil are getting the best players from their own continent. We can’t compete with their scouting networks and I don’t think Dallas should attempt the buy and flip model with South American players. Period. Our first team is in bad shape because of it. American players – Hedges, Hollingshead, Maurer, & the Homegrowns – have been the foundation of this team for the last several years. I don’t say that to be Nationalist – I think it has to do with an understanding of the physical demands of soccer in this country. And the failure of our scouting department.
2) I don’t want to see any more signings from South America unless they come from Brazil or Argentina because Santos and Quignon (so far) were ready for the physicality and athleticism of MLS. Similarly, while other aspects of his game may fail him, Bressan can handle the physical aspects of our league. If we want players who can play in MLS, we will need to shop the right store and we will be required to pay market prices.
3) I’m more interested in Szabolcs Schon than when we first signed him. Our record with players from European leagues has been more successful. They’ve acclimated more easily to the physicality. And Ajax is a good brand. When it comes to 16-19-year-old players, Dallas should focus on their own academy or try to expand the reach of the academy. When it comes to the 20-21-year-old players, I think Dallas is better off going to teams like Dallas – Ajax, Dortmund, Bayern, Southampton, River Plate, Boca Juniors (I say like Dallas to emphasize youth development, not global stature) – and trying to find the kid (like Thomas Roberts) who needs a greener pasture and has the tools for the physicality of MLS.
Friends, I can’t wait to hear from you.