Coming to America
Matias Donnet played for one of the world's most famous teams when he took the field for Boca Juniors. It's a little surprising, then, to hear him detail one of the primary attractions for coming to the U.S. to play for Major League Soccer's D.C. United.
America wasn't completely foreign to Donnet before he signed.
He was looking forward to a certain specific aspect.
"I knew the types of fields I'd find," Donnet explained. "So that convinced me. I liked the conditions in which the fields are kept. It's nice. It's great to be able to enjoy playing on a nice field."
Truth be told, not every field in the U.S. is a high quality grass carpet. Two teams even play on artificial fields, though it's the advanced technology turf that plays most like real grass.
Many players around the world have had to put up with far worse, playing on fields with rocks, bits of broken glass, or other debris. Some fields can turn into virtual mudpits. It's telling that Donnet would laud the U.S. fields, which are sometimes marked by lines for American football, by comparison.
Another player who joined midyear was similarly impressed by the soccer trappings in the U.S. after he joined the league.
"I'm shocked at the facility," said Canadian defender Ante Jazic, a recent new signing for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Jazic previously had considerable experience in Europe, playing for teams in Croatia, Austria and Russia.
"The Home Depot Center is amazing. Everything is at a highly professional level. The facilities are definitely better than they were for me in Europe. It's been wonderful."
Obviously, not every stadium in MLS is as remarkable as the one in Los Angeles, which the Galaxy also shares with Chivas USA. Yet more and more teams are investing in their own stadiums. Two will open next year, for teams in Colorado and Toronto. Columbus, Dallas, and Chicago already have stadiums built for their teams.
Much has been made of how the new stadiums impact the fan experience, improving the atmosphere by creating a more intimate space than the cavernous American football stadiums some MLS teams still play in. It's worth noting, though, that the stadiums are also an attraction for players -- both the ones who are here, and those considering the move.
Because frankly, the soccer in different countries may have more fervent fans, but sometimes it may be missing other aspects that players appreciate. For example, showers with hot water. Donnet mentioned specifically that he was enjoying the locker rooms in the U.S. and the amenities there.
Other trappings of life in the U.S. appeal, such as the international spirit of many of the cities MLS is based in. Christian Gomez, another Argentine who became a member of DC United in 2004, was able to introduce Donnet to Argentine restaurants in the city. More often, though, the teammates just spend downtime together with their families, which newcomer Donnet appreciated.
"We get together and eat and it's nice," described Donnet. "It's special."
Gomez has had practice helping teammates from his home country adjust to the U.S., having assisted young DC defender Facundo Erpen in the transition.
"It's hard to adjust to another language and life," Gomez reflected. "But that's why we're here. It's been two years that I've been here, and Jaime [Moreno] has been here for years. We try to help each other and share times and help each other get to know the team and meet the family."
One player from a certain country can open the floodgates for more through simple word-of-mouth. Jose Manuel Abundis, a Mexican player who recently signed with the New England Revolution, has stated that Claudio Suarez, another Tricolor national team veteran, helped convince him to make the move. Through Suarez plays for Chivas USA, it was no doubt easier for Abundis to make the leap after his friend spoke well of the league.
Other, more practical considerations come into play. Both Gomez and another Argentine, Dario Sala, mentioned the importance of the professionalism of MLS. Specifically, they were pleased at their paychecks arriving regularly. In South America, where Sala also played for teams in Columbia, some players go for months without receiving pay.
Still unable to pay many of the inflated salaries that superstars in the sport demand, MLS has contented itself with improving on an incremental basis. The previous league in the U.S., the NASL, splashed out more money on salaries until it went bankrupt. Even with bigger names on the NASL rosters, some games were actually played on fields with a baseball infield. Only the bases were removed. Slide tackles in that area could draw blood.
Donnet's team, D.C. United, actually shares its current stadium with a baseball team, the Washington Nationals. The infield, however, is carefully covered with sod for every D.C. match, though the outline remains. It might seem strange to those watching the games elsewhere.
On the other hand, the visibility for MLS remains very low abroad. That's partly because the league plays on a different schedule than most of the world.
"In Argentina, you see mostly the local soccer, and some games from Europe," Donnet observed. "There's a little talk about Mexican soccer, and not much else. They don't discuss the soccer here, so I didn't ever hear references to the soccer of this league."
Recently, though, MLS has made some effort to create partnerships with different teams around the world to come regularly to the U.S. to play. Premiership team Chelsea, for example, was the opponent in the MLS All-Star game this year. Chelsea also announced an agreement with the L.A. Galaxy that will bring the team back next year to face the Galaxy. A number of MLS teams also have connections with Mexican League teams and play them regularly in friendlies.
Those games become exposure to the league for players, visits where they can investigate the possibility of a move. Because, for some, salary isn't everything. In the Mexican league, for example, salaries are high, but risks like kidnappings make wealthy soccer players targets.
Another Argentine, Bruno Marioni, currently the top goalscorer in Mexico this season, is reportedly considering a move to MLS as early as next year, with the safety and security of his family top considerations for the switch.
Even in countries where players believe their families are perfectly safe, some long for less scrutiny for their loved ones. Because soccer is not the top sport in the U.S., a degree of anonymity is afforded to players here, which appeals to many.
Chelsea's Joe Cole, for example, took a break from the team's training in Los Angeles to wander around Rodeo Drive unrecognized, speaking later of the novelty of the experience. Another famous player, Luis Figo, has mentioned more than once his desire to play in MLS. David Beckham and his Real Madrid teammate, Ronaldo, have long been named as possible targets for the league as well.
Realistically, such marquee big names will probably still hold off on joining MLS. More and more, though, players on the next tier of skill and recognition, like Donnet, will quietly make the transition successfully.
A secondary benefit of the league's modest status in America is that few soccer players in the U.S. have outsize egos. Most are friendly and eager to welcome new teammates who can contribute.
"I feel comfortable with them," explained Donnet of his D.C. teammates. "They're very open. They're a cheerful group, and that helps a lot."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.