In 2023, MLS rostered players from 81 countries, creating the most geographically diverse player pool of any top men’s professional league across North America. The league obviously represents the top of the domestic pyramid for players from the United States and Canada, and remains a hot destination for South Americans, but more and more talents continue to arrive from other corners of the globe.
So, how are teams finding these players? And which other top prospects could arrive?
Timing is everything
In years gone by, continental championships like the ongoing African Cup of Nations and Asian Cup served as shop windows for teams around the world. As the game has evolved, however, MLS teams are trying to leverage every advantage possible, utilizing video scouting tools and data analytics to have players on their radar far before a moment like a goal in a shock upset of an African power or a converted penalty kick to send a team through in Qatar.
“I think there’s a profound respect for the level of competitiveness at these types of tournaments,” said Thomas Schaling, director of scouting at Charlotte FC. “But I think part of our job is to know 90%-95% of these players before they take part in a major international tournament. Of course, we monitor a tournament, but I don’t believe in buying players based off a three-to-five game sample size.”
Charlotte are hardly alone, and it isn’t just the small number of games keeping front offices from working to bring in a player who shines at a continental championship. Players who have a standout AFCON or Asian Cup may already be on the radar of a club looking to win the UEFA Champions League – the types of teams with bottomless pockets who can swoop in late to secure what they feel is the missing piece.
“The challenge is that we … have to be there before the bigger clubs,” LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington said. “I do think that clubs are now more global in their scouting. You’re seeing more players go from South America to the Premier League and things like that where maybe we could’ve gotten that player first. But if we’re in the conversation when England and Europe are already there, it’s too late.
“Going and watching them at a big tournament and uncovering some big gem, those days are long gone, but the challenge is the same in the sense that we need to be there before them.”
Scouring the globe
That’s why scouting becomes so critical for MLS teams as they look to lock down future stars before a team like Real Madrid or Arsenal realizes they’re going to be future stars.
“The world of football is becoming flatter and flatter, and good players are everywhere now,” said Chris Leitch, general manager of the San Jose Earthquakes. “The hard part is that good players aren’t a secret any more. So, it’s getting harder and harder because players are getting prices on them that some clubs can’t afford and others can, so you’ve got to change and be malleable as the landscape and global game changes as well.”
It’s one reason MLS teams have ended up casting a wider net. Last season saw Leitch’s Quakes utilize Equatorial Guinea mainstay Carlos Akapo and Cape Verde regular Jamiro Monteiro (now a free agent). Between 2018 and 2020, two Georgia internationals – Vako and Guram Kashia – took the field at PayPal Park. Another Georigan, Saba Lobjanidze, is now making waves with Atlanta United.
Wherever a good player may be found, whether AFCON, the Asian Cup or a youth tournament, teams want to have an eye out to see who could be a good fit.
“They’re good competitions filled with very good players. We’re open and do look at high-level competitions, but also very much are open to finding players in, maybe, non-primary markets.” Leitch said. “... We have to be a little bit more industrial and look in other places, and we use a couple of different ways of getting there.”
Needle in the haystack
Those different search methods help sift through the mass of professionals and hopefuls who want to get to MLS but may not help a team get better. The Quakes lean on advanced data and analytics departments, with multiple full-time professionals looking at numbers for both player recruitment and first-team improvement.
That, combined with an increased access to video footage from leagues around the globe, helps clubs focus on players they feel can have the most success in MLS.
“The data and analytics are a big part of our filter that prevent us from watching a lot of players we shouldn’t be watching. Video scouting helps us be targeted, but it can also help globally as well. Live scouting is the most targeted, but by then we’ve already used these sources of information,” Schaling said.
In the end, there’s no way to know if a rising star from the DR Congo or an unknown from Tajikistan will have success in the league. Front offices are simply doing what they can to best understand a player and how he could fit with their team.
Tournaments may be fun for fans and introduce them to plenty of new players, but those who could become difference makers in MLS are likely already on the radar. That’s the new reality in an era where players from all over the world want to play in the league, and clubs have an equal hunger to find those players.
When the numbers are counted in 2024, there a good chance 80+ different nations are represented again, and with teams scouring the globe for the best talent, that diverse influx of talent shows no signs of slowing down.