When nine different Major League Soccer teams signed at least one Colombian player in between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, curious onlookers must have assumed some new kind of Colombian revolution was at hand.
But old-school followers know that Colombian players have actually influenced the league’s makeup since its inception in 1996.
That’s when the likes of hardy defender Leonel Álvarez and midfield magician Carlos Valderrama – the subject of this week’s Emmy-nominated MLS Insider series – first helped pave the way for a steady stream of their countrymen that continues today with the likes Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Chara and FC Dallas speedster Fabián Castillo.
But which Colombian players have achieved the most in MLS since 1996? That’s a tough ask. MLSsoccer.com’s editors gave it a shot, ranking the top five Colombian players in league history based on their accomplishments in MLS.
5. David Ferreira – The former FC Dallas playmaker narrowly edges out former Seattle Sounders striker Fredy Montero, in large part because “El Torito” showed up in the playoffs. After becoming the second Colombian player ever to win the league MVP in 2010, Ferreira scored twice and added three assists during four postseason games, including FCD’s lone goal in MLS Cup.
A scary ankle injury in 2011 robbed him of more prime years in MLS, but when he was healthy and at his best, Ferreira was the most dynamic playmaker in the league.
4. Oscar Pareja – Likely known better now for his coaching stints with the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas – and his help bringing up some of the league’s best young talent in the FCD academy – Pareja was actually one of the steadiest figures in the league during his playing days.
A smooth and heady midfield general, Pareja (right) appeared in at least 20 games for six consecutive seasons in Dallas between 1999-2004, he was a Best XI selection in 2002 and was named to the club’s Hall of Fame in 2011.
3. Jámison Olave – The hulking center back from Medellin was inarguably the best center back in MLS from 2009-11, with the accolades to prove it. The 2010 Defender of the Year and a Best XI selection that year and again in 2011, Olave was one of the central figures for Real Salt Lake’s run to both the 2009 MLS Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League final in 2011.
Although injuries have taken their toll a bit, Olave reemerged last year as a steady force once again with the New York Red Bulls, who won their first-ever Supporters’ Shield with the Colombian holding down the back line.
2. Juan Pablo Ángel – Red Bulls fans won’t soon forget the way Ángel arrived in MLS in 2007, and neither will the goalkeepers who paid the price. The former Aston Villa star scored 19 goals in 24 games his first year – including a stretch with nine goals over six league games within a month of his debut – and ended up a Best XI selection and an MVP candidate.
Even though he was eventually sent packing from New York and he unfittingly left MLS as a Chivas USA player in 2012, Ángel is still one of only two players in league history to score double-digit goals in five consecutive seasons, a feat he accomplished from 2007-11.
1. Carlos Valderrama – When the league was launched in 1996 it needed recognizable faces on the field to draw in new fans, and no one – no one – was more recognizable than Valderrama. Luckily, "El Pibe" backed it up with his play on the field, earning the league’s first MVP award in 1996 and earning a pair of Best XI selections that year and again in 1997 with Tampa Bay. His record-setting season in 2000 with 26 assists is a bit misleading because the league has since tightened up the criteria for assists, but there’s no denying that Valderrama was the best player at his position for at least five seasons during the league’s early days.
He eventually retired after the 2002 season with Colorado (he notched a quiet 16 assists in his final year) and has left every club since looking for the quintessential No. 10 to pull the strings. Unfortunately, there was only one Pibe.
Honorable mentions: Fredy Montero (Seattle Sounders 2009-12), Leonel Álvarez (Dallas Burn 1996, 1998-99, New England Revolution, 1999-2001), Diego Serna (various teams, 1998-2005), Carlos Valdés (Philadelphia Union 2011-12), Adolfo Valencia (New York MetroStars, 2000-01), Diego Chara (Portland Timbers, 2011-current)