Internationals want shot at MLS

aside from the usual heavyweights everyone knows will be in the final round of qualifying such as Mexico, as well as frequent opponents such as Costa Rica, and neighbors like Canada.

What it's also hopefully done is perked the interest of those in Major League Soccer's front office. In each match the USA has played thus far, there have been at least two players on the opposing side who have looked exactly like the type of signings MLS is looking for: talented players who are relatively unknown who wouldn't be looking for million-dollar contracts.

Players from each of the four nations the U.S. have faced know that MLS is a major step up from their leagues at home. And it's a place they want to go.

At the end of the U.S.-Panama match last week, I had a hard time getting quotes from the top Panamanian players. Not because they were being difficult or due to a language barrier, but because they were begging for my e-mail address and phone number.

"I want to play in MLS," said one.

"Tell MLS about us," said another.

"MLS, MLS," chanted another for no apparent reason.

And these were starters. Players who had nearly defeated the USA until Cobi Jones pulled a rabbit out of the bag in stoppage time to get the 1-1 draw. I've never seen anything like it. It was like the Island of Misfit Toys. In this case, though, these weren't broken down subjects who were hoping to get noticed.

Their Santa? None other than MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis.

During the offseason, it would serve Gazidis well to sign several of the talented players that have shined against the U.S. in qualifying. Not that he needs one, but here's a quick checklist to follow:

  • Jason Roberts, Grenada: What a handful this striker was for Eddie Pope and Carlos Bocanegra to deal with during the home-and-home series with the Spice Boyz. Though he's listed at 5-foot-10, Roberts appeared several inches taller, and as physically strong as any striker you'll see. With speed and a nose for the goal to boot.

    "He's just a beast," said Pope after the first encounter in Columbus.

    Roberts plays for Wigan Athletic in England's Coca-Cola Championship (formerly known as the First Division), where he is committed for at least two more years. Being that he's already scored five times in eight matches, a transfer is going to cost a few pounds, or euros, or whatever. However, the Rapids have already shown interest in the 26-year-old. He'd be quite a catch for teams looking for strikers such as the Chicago Fire and D.C. United.

    "Any team in the league would take Roberts," said one agent.

  • Julio Medina, Panama: The focal point of Panama's offense against the U.S. He's one of those players who just has a knack for slipping the ball through the right hole even when it doesn't appear to be open. He plays with flair and isn't afraid to take risks, either. Against the U.S. he kept Kasey Keller on his toes, hitting shots at the goal from beyond the 18-yard box on several occasions. "Funky Cold" Medina plays for Arabe Unido in Panama, and would surely be open to make a major step up to a league like MLS.

  • Victor Velasquez, El Salvador: The team captain and focal point of its defense as a central defender. When U.S. national team assistant coach Curt Onalfo wrote the scouting report for the El Salvador match on ussoccer.com, he said this about Velasquez:

    "He's very good on the ball, tenacious in the tackle, and is excellent in the air at both ends of the field."

    And he certainly showed such attributes in the 2-0 loss to the U.S., as he stood out as his side's top player. Velasquez plays for F.A.S. in El Salvador's home league, and would like good on many MLS sides.

  • Fabian Davis, Jamaica: The right back for the Reggae Boyz played a strong game against the U.S. in the exciting 1-1 draw played in Kingston last month. Unlike several of his teammates around him, Davis does not play overseas. Instead, he plays for Arnett Gardens, where he has played as a central midfielder, a right midfielder and as a right back. Last year, he was the Player of the Year for Jamaica's Premier League, and would be the next in line to make the jump to MLS after Fabian Taylor left Harbour View over the winter to play for the MetroStars.

  • Ricardo Phillips, Panama: This was the little No. 15 on Panama who absolutely gave the U.S. fits in the second half when he played as a right winger. He was the one who broke in alone on Keller and pounced on his own rebound before his shot off the post found a wide-open Roberto Brown a few yards out from the open goal to take a 1-0 lead in the second half.

    Dubbed "Big Foot" by the Panamanian fans for his booming right-footed shots, the 29-year-old striker is also devastatingly quick. And of all the Panamanian players, he spoke the most about his goal to play in MLS.

    "Soccer is growing here in Panama," said Phillips, who plays domestically for Tauro. "But I want to come to MLS. Tell me whatever I have to do. I know I can do well in America. I really just want the chance to play in MLS."

    Hear that, guys?

  • Kellon Baptiste, Grenada: He was the goalkeeper that made more saves than most hockey goaltenders are forced to make in the 3-0 win by the U.S. back on June 13. This isn't a polished goalkeeper by any means, but there's enough raw athletic ability and natural instincts for the position there to at least give him a look. Currently, Baptiste is playing for GBSS in his home country, which is much like playing in our Division III -- above PDL and below the A-League.

  • Erick Prado, El Salvador: Another central defender from El Salvador. Prado currently plays for Isidio Metapan, and would be an interesting signing. Prospective teams can get another look at him on Oct. 9 when the U.S. travels to San Salvador for their next World Cup qualifier.

  • Luis Moreno, Panama: Arena singled out Moreno amongst a stellar back four that had a strong performance again the U.S.

    "He's a very good player," said the U.S. manager. "He played on the right against us, but he traditionally plays as a center back."

    Moreno, who plays for Tauro FC along with Phillips, played for Panama's U-23s during Olympic qualifying, but was not available for the 4-3 loss to the U.S. back on Feb. 3 in Guadalajara, Mexico.

  • Garfield Reid, Jamaica: Although Reid did not play against the U.S., he might be someone to watch in the region as a potential MLS signing. The fast and physical left back is currently playing in Norway for Ham-Kam, and was inquired about by the MetroStars back during the preseason. MLS clubs might be able to watch him perform for the Reggae Boyz when Jamaica takes on the U.S. in Columbus on Nov. 17.

  • Roberto Brown, Panama: Though not as dangerous as 36-year-old strike partner Julio Dely Valdes, Brown is a young forward with a lot of potential. He's one of the few strikers who won as many, if not more, of the 50-50 battles with Pope and Bocanegra. His athleticism and size at 6 feet tall makes him an attractive prospect, yet he needs a lot of work as far as his run-making and decisions. He got pulled offside on far too many occasions against the U.S.

    Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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