Colombians in MLS: A Revolution at hand in New England?

Michael Burns

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of the New England Revolution

As First Kick approaches, MLSsoccer.com is unveiling a three-part series examining the growing influence of Colombian players in Major League Soccer, the reasons behind the influx of players to the league this offseason and which teams are finding Colombia to be a fertile hunting ground for undiscovered talent.

In the final installment, senior editor Nick Firchau examines the different paths for New England and Portland, two clubs leading the gold rush for Colombian players.

Not long after the New England Revolution finished another season in the dumps last fall, Michael Burns went looking for answers somewhere he’d never been.

The Revs, a team whose success was largely built on the backs of American players for years, were at a tipping point. The holdovers from the club’s glory days were dwindling and they’d even parted ways with iconic coach Steve Nicol, leaving the daunting task of a rebuilding year to a handful of veterans and whatever talent Burns could dig up during the offseason.

Burns gets tips from agents almost every day, like any other general manager in MLS. There’s talent in every nook and cranny of Europe, South America and the United States, after all, as long as you’re willing to pick up a phone, trust a hunch, or hop on a plane and take a look.

The tip last November led Burns and new head coach Jay Heaps to Colombia, a place Burns and the Revs had never seriously scouted before. What happened there in short time, however, just might change the Revs’ fate in 2012 and, perhaps more importantly, offered Burns a window into a new direction for the entire league.

“I certainly wasn’t the only one scouting. I went down to one game and there was another MLS team in the same box as me,” Burns told MLSsoccer.com. “He didn’t know I was going to be there, and I didn’t know he was going to be there.

“It’s no different than being at the MLS Combine,” Burns added, “except now you’re in Colombia watching a game.”

Burns and the Revs signed three Colombian players this offseason based on that trip and two subsequent adventures back, a number that in any other year would be an anomaly. But this year they simply kept up with the Joneses, joining nine other MLS squads who signed at least one Colombian player as part of a greater gold rush on newfound talent.

The Revs stockpiled the most of any team by adding Fernando Cárdenas, John Lozano and, after a tricky situation that many thought wouldn’t pan out for New England, Jose Moreno. He’ll miss the Revs’ season opener on Saturday against San Jose while his P1 Visa goes through the approval process, but make no mistake: the Revs are banking at least some of their success this season on what they’ve found in Colombia, and they’re not alone.

The Perfect Fit

Burns isn’t telling just which MLS scout was in the stands that night in Colombia. But the odds are good that the other man doing his homework there was none other than Portland Timbers general manager Gavin Wilkinson, who in very short order has staked his franchise’s success on the fate of four Colombian players.

Wilkinson (right) has scouted for talent throughout Europe, in Togo and in Sierra Leone, among others. But there’s a reason he’s trying desperately to shake his New Zealand accent when he’s working on his Rosetta Stone and learn Spanish: he likes what he’s found in Colombia.

Wilkinson, like Burns, hauled his brand new head coach down to Colombia for a scouting trip not long after John Spencer was hired in 2010. Knowing full well that the Timbers would be an aggressive, entertaining and end-to-end team that required athletic players to get up and down at JELD-WEN Field, Wilkinson was immediately drawn to players like Jorge Perlaza and Diego Chara, both of whom he eventually signed for the team’s expansion season in 2011.

“We watched four games, and at every single game we went to we saw one or two players who would fit what we were trying to do in Portland,” Wilkinson said.

Ask any number of GMs or head coaches in the league about Colombians and you’ll get similar responses: strength, size, speed, skill. Teams like Portland, Seattle, Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas have all reaped the rewards thus far of their investment in the latest scouting trend, thanks to names like David Ferreira, Jámison Olave, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Fredy Montero, all signed since the rush really began in 2008.

What was just singular teams picking up an individual player here or there, though, has undoubtedly become a greater movement. More than half the teams in the league have at least one Colombian player on their roster heading into First Kick this weekend, and those who have already found success there will likely head back, knowing full well that there is dynamic, affordable talent not found in many other regions of the world.

“We’re a league that, because of our salary structure, we can’t go into and take the top players from Brazil because they’re too expensive, or take the top players from England or Spain because they’re too expensive,” Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid said. “But financially we’re able to compete a little bit more [for Colombian players], and that allows us to get a quality player for the money.”

Said Sounders technical director Chris Henderson: “It’s hard to go away from what’s been successful already.”

There is no direct correlation, however, that says Colombian players will automatically lead to team success. Olave was a vital part of RSL’s first league title in 2009 and was invaluable in their CONCACAF Champions League run last year, but it’s the LA Galaxy who have won each of the last two Supporters’ Shields, and you won’t find a single Colombian player on head coach Bruce Arena’s roster.

The same can be said for the Houston Dynamo, who won the Eastern Conference last year. Or the team they beat in the conference final in Sporting Kansas City. Or the 2010 Colorado Rapids, who won the MLS Cup and then started adding Colombians after the 2011 season came to a close.

But teams like Portland continue undaunted. Since signing Perlaza last March and then Chara as the first Designated Player in franchise history a month later, the Timbers have added two more Colombian players and could sign a fifth in the coming weeks, giving them the most Colombian players on any roster in the league.

For the Timbers, it’s simple. They didn’t have an established academy to lean on for young talent last season; proven American talent is more expensive than potential talent from Colombia; and the competition for European players drives up the cost and often leaves MLS teams in the dust.

“The game is different [in Europe], because players simply have more options, and that drives up the price of the player,” Wilkinson said. “Players coming out of Colombia can’t go in too many directions.”

A Revolution in New England?

Enter the Revolution, who have no direction to go but up after last season. They finished tied for the lowest point total in MLS and won a league-low five games, easily their worst season on a sobering decline from dominance last decade.

They enter 2012 with a talented midfield duo of USMNT veteran Benny Feilhaber and perennial Best XI candidate Shalrie Joseph, but not too much more to help battle the likes of Houston, Sporting KC or the New York Red Bulls for the Eastern Conference crown.

So when Burns took a call from an agent late last year offering an invite to Colombia, he did so with an open mind. He didn’t necessarily expect to find his team’s answers, but after watching four live games he had a list of players who could help, and someplace to start.

“Many of the Colombian players complemented our American players very well, in terms of technical ability and work ethic,” he said. “We didn’t go down there thinking we had to sign one, two or three Colombian players, but that’s the way it worked out.”

Burns plucked both Lozano (right) and Cardenas from suddenly struggling side América de Cali, while Moreno comes to MLS on loan from Once Caldas.

The left-footed Cárdenas could be an answer for the Revs in the midfield or tucked under the front line, while the 6-foot-2 defender Lozano is much needed in the back after the Revs allowed 58 goals last year, second most in the league.

Moreno, who signed a deal with the Revs that officially began on March 1 but made headlines in February when he hinted to the Colombian press he might stay put with Once Caldas, is perhaps what the Revs need most. He’s almost certainly the top option at striker this season after the club lost Rajko Lekić during the offseason.

The pressure is undeniably high on all the Colombian imports in the league this season, and certainly on the Revs’ trio. Montero, Olave and Hurtado set the bar high for the group, but what happens if the new crop fails to meet expectations?

“The only thing that’ll happen at some point is that if there’s a batch of Colombians that come into the league and they do poorly,” Schmid said.  “And if someone brings in a player from Ecuador – like Chivas did with [Oswaldo] Minda – and he does really well, then maybe people will look more towards that country. So it’s always a little bit of a trend.”

For now, though, all eyes are fixed on Colombia. Burns, for his part, isn’t naïve about the potential pitfalls of bringing in his trio of players and he certainly knows what’s at stake for his team. But if his offseason trip to Colombia translates to success in 2012, who’s to say he won’t head right back where it all started?

“We’re open to going anywhere in the world to find players that will make our team better,” he said. “For us, this year, we think the three players we signed from Colombia will help us. We hope they individually and we collectively will have a good year, and if they do, it’s certainly a place we’ll revisit.”