A new frontier: The factors behind the new influx of Venezuelans into MLS

Josef Martinez - Atlanta United - closeup during warmups

Just about every winter, a large group of South American players leave home and head north to join MLS. Argentines, Colombians, Brazilians and Uruguayans have all come up in significant numbers over the years, making a huge impact on their individual clubs and on the league at large.

That trend has continued this offseason, with the new influx of Targeted Allocation Money allowing teams to splash serious cash on some of the most promising young talent from the continent.

Argentine teen Ezequiel Barco and high-priced Paraguayan youngsters Jesus Medina and Josue Colman have drawn the biggest headlines, but a new, surprising group is now dominating the MLS transfer market: Venezuelans.

Six Venezuelans have already signed with MLS clubs this winter, with a seventh, Cristian Casseres Jr., reportedly on the way. That’s more than the five Argentines that have joined the league this offseason and significantly more than have come from any other South American nation.

The new arrivals will join three of their countrymen already in the league in Atlanta star Josef Martinez, New York City FC’s Yangel Herrera and Real Salt Lake’s Jefferson Savarino, putting the number of Venezuelans on opening day rosters at least at 10. That’ll dwarf the previous record of Venezuelans in the league in a single season, set at five last year.

A few factors are driving the great migration of Venezuelans into the league, chief among them the turmoil currently engulfing their home country. Venezuela is in the middle of the worst social and economic crisis in its history, with widespread hunger, unemployment and violent crime affecting every aspect of daily life, including professional soccer. Clubs occasionally struggle to pay their players, who, in turn, are looking for more stable situations for themselves and their families at increasing rates.

“It’s not a simple answer, but I would suggest that there is no escaping the fact that the realities of the situation currently in Venezuela – socially, politically, economically – affects every aspect of life, including professional sports,” said ESPN analyst, former Venezuela international and longtime MLS striker Alejandro Moreno.

More and more players are starting to eye MLS as an attractive destination, with the league’s good wages, stable platform, solid soccer and the comparative security and safety of the US and Canada drawing Venezuelans to North America.

“One of the biggest tragedies of the turmoil that is currently going on in Venezuela is the hemorrhage of human talent,” said Moreno. “People are leaving the country left and right, they’re being productive somewhere else and, all the while, Venezuela continues to struggle – and you cannot blame them, because you’ve got to make decisions that benefit you individually and benefit your family, as well. I do think that that need to search for stability, to search for peace of mind points directly to Major League Soccer.”

The ongoing unrest and human suffering in Venezuela shouldn’t be minimized. It’s a major crisis affecting millions every day, and it’s a driving reason why so many Venezuelan players are leaving home. But, as Moreno noted, there are two sides to every transaction, and other developments both within and outside of MLS have smoothed the path for clubs to bring players to the league.

On the players’ side, the rising global stature of MLS is playing a role in making the league attractive. Having a high-profile star like Martinez shine in front of huge crowds in Atlanta helps, as do the successes of Herrera and Savarino.

From the teams’ perspective, the addition of new TAM has helped open the Venezuelan market. Though only one of the Venezuelan signings this winter – Vancouver forward Anthony Blondell – have been made using TAM, the mechanism allows clubs to spend more in the middle of their roster. That means transfer fees and higher salaries in spots that previously had to remain low cost.

Bigger and better scouting networks have helped, too, as has the increased visibility of Venezuela players through solid performances at the 2016 Copa América Centenario and the 2017 Under-20 World Cup. All of that has manifested with Atlanta signing U-20 defender Jose Hernandez, D.C. landing Vinotinto midfielder Junior Moreno, Columbus acquiring promising 21-year-old attacker Eduardo Sosa and other Venezuelans signing around the league.

“Traditionally, Argentina, Brazil and Colombia are the powerhouse countries in South America, but as the world markets get much more competitive, you’re seeing some of the smaller countries get more competitive, as well. Venezuela falls into that category, and it’s being reflected here,” said Houston Dynamo GM Matt Jordan, who signed Venezuelan defender Alejandro Fuenmayor this winter.

Another factor helping Venezuelans? They’re typically cheaper than comparable players from Argentina or Brazil. New TAM or not, that’s never a bad thing for MLS teams.

“You put together the idea that Venezuelan players are looking for opportunities and MLS is looking for – or trending to look for – younger players that could develop and thrive in Major League Soccer, then it certainly fits in terms of Venezuela being the right choice,” said Moreno. “The other thing about it, and I don’t think there’s any question here, the younger Venezuelan player comes at a cheaper rate than would a younger Argentinian or Brazilian player. So, all those things, I think they all come together, they all fit together and they all play in the hands of MLS teams.”

If the new Venezuelans have success in MLS, both Moreno and Jordan think the pipeline from the country to the league should continue flowing freely. And as teams start to figure out how to spend their new TAM, other markets should emerge, too, with more players from previously underrepresented nations like Paraguay and Peru likely to move to MLS in increased numbers in coming years.

“I think you’re already seeing more Paraguayan players coming to MLS, you’re seeing more Peruvian players, you’re seeing more Venezuelan players,” said Jordan. “I think it’s just how competitive the world is getting. You’re really seeing it all over, there’s just no easy games, no easy international games, and that makes more markets more attractive and accessible.”