With just one match left in the 2019 Copa America — Brazil and Peru face off in the final on Sunday — the premier South American tournament for national teams is drawing to a close with plenty of current and former MLS players playing major roles: from ex-Atlanta United attacker Miguel Almiron starring for Paraguay to Real Salt Lake's Jefferson Savarino helping power one of the best Venezuela performances of all-time.
And given how heavily scouted Copa America is, the event is bound to result in more great South American players making their way to MLS at some point in the future. I'm putting on that scout's hat here, whipping up a list of players I enjoyed watching and fantasizing as to where I could see them playing one day in MLS.
I'm staying away from the obvious names — Edinson Cavani, Everton, Lionel Messi ... though James Rodriguez is still looking for his next move! — and instead focusing on under-the-radar players emerging from countries on the verge of breaking out over the next few years on the international soccer scene.
Renato Tapia (Defensive Midfielder, Feyenoord & Peru)
A true destroyer in central midfield who sits in front of his center backs breaking up play. Not just a tackler, Tapia has quality on the ball as well. He is used as the central piece building out of the back when he drops between the center backs to start possessions. He has had trouble finding playing time at his home club, Feyenoord, spending last season at Willem II in the Netherlands. Rumors have already linked him with Cruz Azul this window so he is already looking at a potential move back across the Atlantic.
MLS Placement: San Jose Earthquakes - The Quakes are on a roll under Matias Almeyda, but Tapia would be a massive upgrade over Judson (or Anibal Godoy) at defensive midfield. Cleaner in possession, he would be able to link up with Jackson Yueill, potentially unlocking his attacking quality, similar to what he has done for Yoshi Yotun at the international level.
Jhon Murillo (Left Winger, Tondela & Venezuela)
An electric left winger who in his young career has become a mainstay for the Vinotinto. As a right-footed player who starts on the left, Murillo loves to cut infield and hit a dangerous cross or shot, he is always able to get to that foot as his fullbacks fear his speed down the line. A multifaceted player, he can succeed isolated out wide, but is also goal dangerous when he comes infield to play off a central striker.
MLS Placement: FC Dallas - With Carlos Gruezo gone and room on the roster, Murillo could take Luchi Gonzalez’s attack to another level. With his ability to create consistently out wide or cut in like Michael Barrios on the opposite wing, this would be a great fit for a young attacking player. It would be exciting to watch a front three capable of interchanging and creating danger all over the field.
Matias Rojas (Attacking Midfielder, Racing & Paraguay)
A high-level attacking player with a feathery touch and vision to open up the game, Rojas would be a star in MLS. Normally the main attacking midfielder, Almiron’s presence has forced him to play out wide or deeper in this tournament. Rojas can break the game open with a through ball, but is also very patient and can control the tempo of the game while waiting for that big chance to open up.
MLS Placement: Vancouver Whitecaps - Almost a carbon copy of Inbeom Hwang, Rojas could play at the No. 10, on the side of a diamond or out wide. He has the work rate and understanding to play in a team that doesn’t dominate possession like the Whitecaps, but could help Marc Dos Santos' side develop their style.
Roger Martinez (Forward, Club America & Colombia)
The Liga MX forward came off the bench to beat Argentina in the opening Copa America match with arguably the best goal of the tournament. Martinez can do it all — he can play either down the middle or out on the wing and brings to the game breakaway speed, strength to hold up the ball, dribbling ability, and can finish with both feet. He has floated around a lot in his young career and rumors have already linked him with an MLS move.
MLS Placement: New England Revolution - The Revs are off to a good start in the Bruce Arena-era, but what will take them to the next level going forward? Teal Bunbury has filled in well at center forward so far, but Martinez, entering his prime, could be one of the top forwards in MLS. He has the speed to play out on the break with Cristian Penilla and Juan Agudelo and his versatility would be useful as Arena builds his squad going forward.
Christofer Gonzalez (Attacking Midfielder, Sporting Cristal & Peru)
A smooth, calm player, Gonzalez never looks rattled even when pressured in the midfield. He can play as the attacking midfielder with the creative pressure on his shoulders or deeper alongside a true No. 6. Either way, he has an eye for the final pass and loves to make late runs into the attack after hitting the through ball. He has shown his ability to cover a ton of ground defensively as an attacking player which has allowed his coaches to use him in so many different ways.
MLS Placement: New York Red Bulls - Gonzalez’s combination of attacking quality and hard running would fit in perfectly with the Red Bulls. I can see him playing as a more dangerous attacking replacement over Marc Rzatkowski alongside Sean Davis, or sliding Kaku out wide.
Wuilker Fariñez (Goalkeeper, Millonarios & Venezuela)
You must have heard about this 21-year-old goalkeeping phenom by now. He shut out the US national team in Cincinnati before heading off to the Copa America and starting the tournament with one of the most outstanding saves against Peru. Nicknamed “The Feline,” Fariñez has off-the-charts athleticism and has already made some of the best saves on the planet. There is still plenty he can improve on, especially controlling his box on aerial balls, and MLS could be the perfect next step for him.
MLS Placement: Columbus Crew SC - Does a young, uber-athletic goalkeeper with a ton of potential looking for a good spot to develop sound familiar? With Zack Steffen heading to Europe, Columbus have a need for a goalkeeper and have proven they can develop a player like Farinez.
Juan Cuadrado (Winger, Juventus & Colombia)
Here is the David Gass fantasy portion of this article. I don’t have to tell you how special Juan Cuadrado can be when he is on his game. He has been one of the most exciting 1-v-1 players in the world over the last decade and the type of player you want to watch for hours. While Cuadrado might be losing a little bit of his speed, he would still be effective on the wing in MLS, or become a central midfielder, a la Nani. We saw Carlos Queiroz play him there at times this summer and it is clear no matter where he starts, Cuadrado is still a big-game player who can create in the attack.
MLS Placement: New York City FC - There hasn’t been a big-name player to draw the fans since former MVP David Villa left the team. Can you imagine the atmosphere at a home game in New York City with a Colombian national team star in the lineup? Cuadrado could start opposite Alexandru Mitrita bringing goal danger to the right wing, or slide inside as a replacement for Maxi Moralez, who is older and in the last year of his contract.
Christian Cueva (Attacking Midfielder, Santos FC & Peru)
It kills me that Christian Cueva has not already played in MLS yet, spending the bulk of his professional career in Brazil. On loan currently from his Russian club Krasnodar back to Brazil, he has been linked with a move to Orlando City in the past. Cueva plays like his hair is on fire at all times and it is infectious. He can be so dangerous underneath a physical striker, buzzing around creating chances and finishing himself.
MLS Placement: Orlando City SC - Let's not make this too complicated -- he has already been linked to OCSC and they need talent infusion everywhere. Cueva could play as another attacking mid alongside Nani, play out wide himself, or push Nani to his more natural winger position. Cueva has led Peru over the last four years out of the wilderness to unprecedented success — let him do the same in Florida.