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Liga MX to MLS: What's behind the unprecedented influx of talent

MLS and its southern rival Liga MX have grown markedly closer in recent years – from Campeones Cup to Leagues Cup and this summer's epic All-Star showdown in LA. Yet this winter the relationship took on a new tenor as the flow of talent northward reached unprecedented rates in both numerical and financial terms.

Ten top players, and counting, have made the move from Mexico to MLS during the current offseason, many of them on Designated Player deals and record-breaking transfer fees. Each has cited different reasons for their choice, ranging from facilities to national team ambitions to European dreams and more.

Why did they arrive, and what do they bring? Here’s a rundown.

Rodolfo Pizarro, Inter Miami CF

Miami scored a coup in prying the Mexican international away from reigning Concacaf champions CF Monterrey in what’s already one of the year’s big-ticket transactions. Pizarro is a playmaker as versatile as he is talented, able to pose a range of threats in multiple attacking roles.

Above all he’s a winner: He’s hoisted three Liga MX titles with three different clubs, and was key in Los Rayados’ Champions League triumph.

“The level of players there [in MLS] silences the critics,” he said upon signing. "Carlos Vela is there and I think he’s one of the best Mexican players — the best one today. And Chicharito is there and he’s had one of the best careers. [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic was there.

“[Beckham] spoke to me on video calls, he told me that he wanted me to come, and speaking to him on the calls influenced my decision [to come] a lot … I see myself being an important player with the national team. I spoke with Tata Martino and he said the level [of play] is similar [to Liga MX].”
 

Lucas Zelarayan, Columbus Crew SC

How do you replace perhaps the most prominent, accomplished (and definitely highest-paid) player in your history? That was the Crew’s quandary after parting ways with club legend Federico Higuain, and new owners the Haslam and Edwards families went big, smashing Columbus’ transfer-fee record to reel in Zelarayan from Liga MX giants Tigres UANL.

The Argentine creator had a good thing going in Nuevo Leon, fighting for trophies every year on a generous salary figure. His ambitions to become the focal point of a contender led him to Ohio, however.

“I was in a really nice club, a big club,” he told ESPN. “I had a lot of friends, but I didn't play as much as I hoped. I didn't get that many minutes and I decided to change to a club with a nice project that wants to be important in the league.”
 

Lucas Cavallini, Vancouver Whitecaps

The big, combative target striker’s reported $6 million move from Puebla to British Columbia to sign a Designated Player contract marks the most VWFC have ever spent on one player. It’s also a homecoming for a Canadian international who has spent his entire career to date in Latin America.

“It was an easy decision coming home,” he said. “There's a lot of potential to be a better league than the Mexican league. It's just a process that's going to take time, but with the right players and the right mentality, it's going to be a really important league and one of the best in the world in the future.

"I was impressed by what Vancouver had to offer me as a footballer. They brought me here for a reason. What I like to do is score goals and help this team win as many games as possible. It's been 10 years since I left Canada. I want to bring what I've learned from outside to a club like this. The club has a long history and I'm willing to do what it takes."

Alan Pulido, Sporting Kansas City

After an eight-year streak of qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs, marked by four trophy hoists, came shuddering to a halt with their painful 2019 campaign, Sporting KC sought to make a bold statement in response. Pulido, meanwhile, had just won Liga MX’s golden boot with Chivas Guadalajara, an individual accomplishment to place alongside the Liga MX, Copa MX and Champions League titles he'd helped the Mexico giants win.

So the two parties linked up, marking a new era together via a club-record swoop that signals SKC’s desire to return to the MLS elite – and Pulido’s intent to become an El Tri icon.

“The first thing is, life is different here in terms of the quality of life,” Pulido told SKC's website. “That being said, the league in itself has grown a great deal. There have been names that have joined the league like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. This motivates players because you want to be on the stage with those types of names.

“I know there are Mexican players that definitely think about that in terms of European teams watching them. So when you add all those things together, that’s why Mexican players are being drawn to the league.”

Edison Flores, D.C. United

When Wayne Rooney and Luciano Acosta – the dynamic duo dubbed “LuchoRoo” – departed the U.S. capital at the end of the 2019 season, it brought United to a crossroads. What would the Black-and-Red’s identity become? And could they keep pace with rapidly escalating spending levels across MLS?

They found one answer in “Orejas,” the Peruvian attacker who has starred for both Morelia and the Peru national team in recent years. Quick, incisive and able to play both on the wing and as a central playmaker, Flores prompted D.C. to become the latest MLS club to break their transfer-fee record this winter on a five-year contract. The potential to connect with the Washington region’s large Peruvian-American population held appeal for both parties.

“Thanks to my good friends Raúl (Ruidiaz, Seattle Sounders) and Andy (Polo, Portland Timbers), who have been with me since we were small, they always comment on how much they love this league," Flores told Sports Illustrated. "And I do my research. There are great players and staff in every team [in this league], and I think for Peruvians, coming here will help them grow as people, not just players. So, I arrive to this league knowing a lot about it.”

Fernando Meza, Atlanta United

When the Five Stripes decided to move on from center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, one of their most popular and longest-serving players, they turned to another Argentine, this time from Liga MX, for his replacement at the heart of their defense.

Anchoring the backline as Atlanta vies for another trophy haul in 2020 will be no easy task for Meza, who’ll be asked to pass cleanly out of the back and provide veteran savvy alongside the talented but still young Miles Robinson. He’s eager for a fresh challenge in a new setting.

“I had no hesitation,” Meza told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s a very big country, and it’s a new experience for me. As a football player, you dream to get know as many stadiums and places as you can, so that at the end of your career you can say I played and I played here.”

Felipe Mora, Portland Timbers

The Chilean international arrived in the Rose City on loan from Pumas UNAM this winter with the Portland Timbers seemingly reaping value from the fact that he’s fallen down the pecking order at the Mexico City club. Based on his track record, he is primed to resume a starting role in MLS.

Mora has scored consistently across more than 200 career appearances in Mexico and in his homeland – where he won a league title with Universidad de Chile – and he will definitely compete for Portland’s starting striker job.

“I'm very happy, with high expectations about joining Portland. We're looking forward to doing important things here … I hope to score a lot of goals,” he told Timbers.com during preseason. “I can already tell this is a very competitive team that wants to achieve success this season.”

The Timbers have created plenty of chances in recent years; is Mora the fox in the box to finish them efficiently? An affirmative answer could well pace a return to MLS Cup for the 2018 finalists, and a place in the hearts of Stumptown’s fervent faithful.

Oswaldo Alanis, San Jose Earthquakes

After breaking MLS hearts as a Chivas mainstay in their dramatic 2018 Concacaf Champions League final victory over Toronto FC, one of five trophies he won in Guadalajara, Alanis reunites with Matias Almeyda as the Quakes’ showcase backline reinforcement for Year 2 under the charismatic Argentine coach.

Seeking out a new challenge and an American experience under the guidance of that familiar face, the rangy center back is expected to shore up the biggest area of need for San Jose, who were a neutral’s favorite in 2019 but leaked goals at costly moments.

“Life led me to San Jose. It checked off all the requirements to move here and be part of this project,” Alanis told the Quakes’ website. “It's a very dynamic and competitive style of soccer. It has a big fan base and it keeps growing,” he added, professing his desire “to enjoy everything San Jose has to offer like the quality of life and everything else that's different.”

Pedro Gallese, Orlando City SC

MLS’s Peruvian influx rolls on with the arrival of one of the country's biggest names, who has joined Orlando to help spearhead new coach Oscar Pareja’s renewal project in Orlando.

Peru’s incumbent starter in goal arrives as a free agent from CD Veracruz – in the wake of a loan spell back home with Alianza Lima – after the troubled Liga MX bottom feeders were disaffiliated amid mounting debts and unpaid bills. Now he aims to lead the Lions to their first postseason appearance in their five-year MLS history.

“This move represents a big objective for me and for my career,” Gallese told Sports Illustrated. “I have made it my goal to reach the finals with Orlando and make history with this club.

“Something that’s very important for me and my family is to live peacefully, too, so I can also get on with my job,” he added. “When you’re in Peru, it’s hard to go outside in the street, go shopping or whatever, because someone would want a photo, so as appreciative as I am, I’d rather have a little more peace.”

Franco Jara, FC Dallas

Back in 2017, the 31-year-old Argentine marksman scored twice in Pachuca’s narrow 4-3 aggregate victory over FC Dallas in the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League, en route to Los Tuzos winning the tournament – and Jara earning the Golden Ball as MVP. It made quite an impression on FC Dallas president Dan Hunt.

“I had known about him and seen him a little bit, but watching that player, he really had a hand in having us knocked out of the semifinals of the [Concacaf] Champions League. So I said, if we ever get a chance, we're going to bring that player to FC Dallas,” Hunt told MLSsoccer.com. “I'm thrilled that we were able to sign a deal.”

Jara has averaged nearly a goal every other game for Pachuca over the past four-plus years, making him the Hidalgo club’s all-time top scorer in the Liga MX era and helping them hoist league and Champions League trophies. Now in the final months of his Pachuca contract, Jara will join Dallas in the summer transfer window.

While he’s thus far declined to publicly discuss his MLS prospects in detail, vowing to concentrate fully on his final months with Pachuca, he may well be the elite finisher the North Texans have needed for years. Could this be the season FCD finally reach the MLS Cup summit that’s eluded them since the league’s birth?

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