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MLS plays vital role in rising tide of Panamanian soccer

Blas Perez

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PANAMA CITY, Panama – The US national team’s friendly match in Panama on Wednesday night (8:30 pm ET, ESPN3, Galavisión, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com) comes at a transformational time in the history of the game for this Central American nation. In a country where baseball and boxing have always been king, the world’s game has made some important inroads over the last decade.

Now, after a historic Gold Cup semifinal run in 2011, including Panama’s first-ever victory over the US, the nation has its eyes on getting to Brazil in 2014. Key in that process will be the professionalization of the local league and getting more players abroad.

And – as it has for other smaller countries around the region – MLS has a huge role to play.

The league has swooped in this summer for three Panamanians, all of whom will be sporting the red jersey in Rommel Fernández on Wednesday night before heading north for preseason in the US. The Philadelphia Union picked up rangy midfielder Gabriel Gómez, while FC Dallas added left-footed defender Carlos Rodríguez and veteran striker Blas Pérez.

Panamanian coach Julio Dely Valdés (at right, with Málaga in 2002), who with stints of his own in Paraguay, Italy, France and Spain is the most successful Panamanian export to date, feels going abroad is one of the most important steps talented young Panamanians can take.

Today, he sees MLS as great option for his countrymen.

“I’ve seen plenty of MLS games, the level is really getting better and Panamanian players who go there have a real chance to improve their games,” the coach told MLSsoccer.com in an exclusive interview at the team hotel on Tuesday. “Without a doubt, automatically it makes our national team better. Anytime a player goes to play in a league that’s stronger than our local league, it makes the team better and makes my job as a trainer easier.”

Dely Valdés said he has watched the growth of the American league closely over the years, and is extremely impressed by the rapid increase in quality over the last few seasons, despite rapid expansion.

His brother Jorge played for the Colorado Rapids from 1999-2000, one of four Panamanian players who have appeared in MLS.

“I think the American league is very competitive,” Dely Valdés said. “It’s getting bigger, but better and better, and now even the stadiums are filling up. The American players are getting better and better, you can see it when the national team plays. MLS also treats their players correctly and fairly. It’s a great place for players from around the region like ours.”

For his part, Rodríguez, first spotted by FC Dallas during the teams’ CONCACAF Champions League games, is ready to move north and get his MLS career underway. He and Pérez will travel to Dallas on Thursday to join their teammates’ preseason preparations, and the young Olympic team hopeful is enthusiastic about pairing with the veteran Pérez in MLS.

“Blas Pérez is a real reference of Panamanian soccer, it’s going to be great to play with him in Dallas,” Rodriguez told MLSsoccer.com after practice on Tuesday. “They say we’ll do preseason there when we arrive, and it will be great to get started in a league like MLS, with all the history and weight that it carries.”

MLS has served as an off-the-field model as well for Panamanian players, who are just beginning the process of organizing and negotiating labor rights. Rodríguez says players expect the local league will continue to grow as interest in the sport and success on the field increase.

As that happens, more Panamanians will undoubtedly set their sights on MLS, meaning this winter’s transfer action could be just the first wave in a growing red tide headed north.