Gold Cup: Are regional standouts on their way to MLS?

Rodolfo Zelaya of El Salvador

Photo Credit: 
Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Gold Cup determines the region’s top team and, in every other edition, decides who will represent CONCACAF in the Confederations Cup. But as its profile grows, the tournament has also become something of a showcase for up-and-coming talents from lesser-known locales — many of whom are setting their sights on Major League Soccer as a place to advance their careers.

With four goals, El Salvador's Rodolfo Zelaya (above right) presently sits in second place on the 2011 Gold Cup scoring chart. Despite the heartbreak of missing a penalty kick in the first half of his team’s quarterfinal loss to Panama here on Sunday, the Salvadoran standout won his second Man of the Mmatch award of the tournament.

Afterward, the 22-year-old made no secret of his — and his teammates’ — desire to earn an opportunity in the league where his countrymen have been plying their trade since its inception in 1996.

“We all hope to get out of El Salvador,” he said through an interpreter. “We all try to demonstrate on the field that we have the ability to get out of our country — that’s what all of us want, to come here and play in MLS.”

An spritely attacker most comfortable as a second striker, Zelaya was part of a trio of Salvadorans — including former D.C. United signing Christian Castillo — brought in by Mexican second-division side Club León in 2009. But he was soon loaned back to Alianza FC in his homeland, due in part to the Mexican league’s roster limits on foreign players. He’s since been the subject of transfer rumors in other nations and may find himself on the radar of MLS clubs looking to add inventiveness to their front line.

READ: Dynamo admit they're scouting Zelaya

Jamaican midfielder Keammar Daley is in a similar situation. The 23-year-old rapidly rose through his country’s youth program and has contributed to successful campaigns at the Under-20 international level as well as at his club, Tivoli Gardens FC, which won top spot in Jamaica’s National Premier League this season. He provided a creative spark for the Reggae Boyz in Gold Cup play, starting one match and coming off the bench in their other three games.

“Definitely, this is a main objective, to get something overseas,” he told MLSsoccer.com after Jamaica’s 2-0 quarterfinal loss to the United States on Sunday. “We had a good tournament ... in the end, we came here to get results. A few of the players [are] looking for contracts. I think there are a few clubs interested, so I’m just looking forward and staying fit.”

Daley sounded bullish about the prospect of following in the footsteps of his eight teammates presently playing for MLS clubs, though he noted that Jamaican internationals have lately been welcomed in some Scandinavian leagues as well.

“MLS is the place right now, it’s getting higher and higher and other players are looking to MLS,” he said. “Elsewhere is always an option, because it’s not a direct thing, you know? You can go elsewhere and start, but the play in MLS, it’s getting world-class level now. A lot of players from Europe are coming into MLS also, so it’s improving and I would love to get a start there.

“A few other [Jamaican] players are in MLS and a lot more of us would love to join them, also.”