When the J League started in the early 1990s, administrators imported Argentineans and Brazilians, not only players but also coaches and training staff. The reasoning was basic and cost-conscious: Japanese fans were attracted to the Latin style, and talent from South America was relatively cheap and plentiful.
The MLS had no similar focus. Sunil Gulati, as deputy commissioner, spent much of the league's player acquisition budget on high-level players from Latin America. But there was no consistent follow-up on the Latino player market, and the initial success of Mauricio Cienfuegos, Marco Etcheverry, Eduardo Hurtado, Adrian Paz, Carlos Valderrama et al did not lead to a flow of talent into the MLS.
There were several other Latino performers who did not make such a strong impact in the MLS. Daniel Peinado (Dallas) and Leonardo Squadrone (New England) came from Club Atletico Lanus in 1997, lasting one season in the MLS; they were not difference-makers, but it might have paid to keep the pipeline flowing. The coach of that Lanus team was Miguel Angel Russo, now coaching Boca Juniors. And Lanus has won the Argentine championship for the first time.
Players will not come cheaply from Boca Juniors, Lanus or Copa Sudamericana champion Arsenal de Sarandi. But a year ago, those same Arsenal and Lanus performers might have been available for a reasonable price; their values have rightfully been inflated by their teams' success.
D.C. United and Revolution coaches have been among the MLS representatives making scouting trips to Argentina recently. Revolution coach Steve Nicol and assistant Paul Mariner were seeking bargains, attending nearly as many second-division games as first-division games earlier this month. They kept a low profile, realizing their very presence was bound to increase asking prices. And that might be a better strategy than United's overly ambitious attempt to attract Juan Sebastian Veron.
Argentine clubs are good at gauging interest and determining value. That is how many of them survive. If Arsenal and Lanus make the right deals now, they could be set up for several years.
MLS teams are not going to compete with European suitors, which are willing to shell out millions for burgeoning talent. But there is still an opportunity for the MLS because Argentina's modest clubs pay poorly.
The highest-paid Arsenal players, Jose Luis Calderon and Anibal Matellan, earn $5,000 per month. Calderon and Matellan are veterans, brought in to solidify the roster, and their foreign mercenary days likely over. The best Arsenal prospect is Alejandro Gomez, a 19-year-old midfielder who likely will move either to a big club in Argentina or to Europe. Gomez, at 5-foot-6, might not be what MLS teams are looking for (although that type of playmaker is precisely what they should be seeking). But a can't-miss MLS prospect would be 29-year-old Andres San Martin, a 6-foot-1 midfield monster who covers ground defensively and is a threat going forward.
The trick is to find players who want to move on, who see the MLS as a steppingstone or would feel at home in the U.S., as Christian Gomez, an Arsenal product, apparently does in D.C. It also helps if their agents and clubs are sympathetic to the MLS cause. One major deal with a European club can set up an agent and his player for life. An Argentine agent might have to make 10 deals with the MLS to equal that. Unless you are willing to break the bank, recruiting players from Argentina and romancing their agents and clubs requires patience.
The quality of play in the MLS is improving. Going to eight foreigners per team, regardless of age, gives the MLS a chance to raise the level even higher. MLS coaches will have to make the right choices. And they will have to cultivate relationships south of the border. It will pay off in the long run.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.