Of the 543 players currently active in Major League Soccer, just under half (48.8%) were born in the United States of America. Given that there are three MLS teams north of the border, you may have thought that Canada might be the second-most represented nationality. However, just 3.9% of MLS players are Canadian. Second place actually belongs to Colombia, with almost one in every twenty MLS players (4.7%).
So what has motivated so many Colombians to venture north? ThePortland Timbers midfielder Diego Chará believes he knows:
"I think it’s because Colombian players are able to adapt to various styles of play very well. I have had Colombian players ask me about MLS. They ask about the level of play, and some tell me that they love the speed of play. I tell them it’s a very different game than Colombia. It is a lot faster and a lot more physical. I tell them it is a good league."
Alongside good salary packages, the appeal of MLS to Colombians is clear – in some instances, just being paid on time is enough. In the early 1950s Colombia’s domestic league was considered one of the best in the world, earning it the nickname “El Dorado” (“The golden one”). Today’s situation is a stark contrast. The domestic game in Colombia is struggling financially – a consequence of attempts to cleanse itself of ill-gotten money.
Few clubs illustrate the problem more than América De Cali, which has debts of nearly $2m. The club’s problems date back to the mid-90s, when it was placed on the infamous Clinton List). This meant that the club’s assets and bank accounts on US soil were frozen, due to suspected links to illegal activities. In a bid to clear to the club’s name,the América de Cali hierarchy recently held discussions over changing the team’s name and management.
Such financial insecurity has bred uncertainty amongst Colombian players – as Gavin Wilkinson, the former technical director and now interim head coach of the Portland Timbers, explains:
"When Jorge Perlaza first arrived at the club he came to see me around a month in because he hadn’t received a paycheck yet. I explained to him the money should already be in his account. At the time I was still using an interpreter. We actually ended up going to the bank across the street to check it was definitely in there."
Perlaza’s worries were understandable. In Colombia, players have been known to go unpaid for months. The Timbers defender Hanyer Mosquera, who played for Deportes Quindío and La Equidad in Colombia, has first-hand experience of this.
"It was an unfortunate experience in that they weren’t punctual in their payments at times," he said. "It is very important for me to be able to provide for my family the way they deserve."
When comparing life as a soccer player in the US and in Colombia, Mosquera’s assessment is simple: “I am happy in both places, but I miss my family obviously. The soccer is the same here and there, so there is not much change. One of my dreams was to be successful in a high-level league outside my country. [MLS] is a league that is well-known, and games are broadcast everywhere.”
Chará, like Mosquera, is keen to stress that for Colombians it is the play, not the pay, that provides motivation: “More than [clubs] just paying in full, it’s more about a change of culture for me, and learning this style of play.
"For the most part I was treated fairly in Colombia, but going unpaid does happen. The players that want to come over here appreciate knowing they will have financial stability."
When speaking to Colombians about MLS, the speed of play is often mentioned. Fredy Montero of the Seattle Sounders also admires the opportunity for growth.
"I like how fast the game is here," he said. "The level is good here. The MLS is building a really strong league to develop the young players and the future stars of soccer."
Wilkinson says of MLS clubs’s interest in Colombian players: “For us, South America has been a good market. We’ve needed to get players that can maintain their value. With the salary cap system in MLS, if a player is earning $100,000 they need to be a $100-$150,000 player.”
Given that such value for money is a key component of any transfer deal, Real Salt Lake’s Jámison Olave perhaps provides the best example of Colombian value. The former Deportivo Cali man was named MLS defender of the year in 2010. His cost to RSL? A mere $240,000.
Now that clubs such as Portland are established in the Colombian marketplace, players like Chará are used to provide character references for potential new recruits – such as Mosquera.
"I knew Diego Chará beforehand and I talked to him about joining the Timbers," said Mosquera. "He told me about what a great opportunity the team provides, both professionally and personally. I saw fellow countrymen who were successful here, and that interested me a lot. MLS is an attractive league. There’s always talk about the American dream and the peace of mind people have here. It goes beyond the soccer aspect to quality of life, too."
Wilkinson is keen to stress just how much research was involved prior to his decision to look for players in Colombia.
"Normally I get a good sense of the player and his club, why he’s at where he’s at," he said. "I think it also helps to know the clubs transaction history: whether the club need the money or not and how that will affect the player’s price. I’m not going to say the price on Diego Chará was driven up, but Deportes Tolima has a reputation for not being the easiest club to work with, because they don’t need the money. With Hanyer Mosquera we knew the club were coming into financial trouble that heated up the pursuit of him and we were able to get him."
The Timbers also secured loan deals for Sebastián Rincón and José Adolfo Valencia, despite the latter having a knee injury that would rule him out for six to 12 months.
"He’s only 20," Wilkinson said of Valencia. "We believe he has the ability, the talent and the athleticism to make a full recovery and be an impact player for the Portland Timbers."
Wilkinson says the deal was a chance for the Timbers to show how they operated.
"Yes we could have sent him back and washed our hands of it but I think that sends the wrong message to every other player we’re trying to bring into this organization and every player already here. One of the things we’d like to be recognized for is how we treat our players and how professional we are on and off the field. I think José is an indication of how we value players in general."
The work doesn’t end when the player arrives at the club. For the Timbers, that’s when Beto Angulo enters the fold.
"Beto is a tremendous person," Wilkinson said. "He’s a full-time player-relations manager. Beto speaks fluent Spanish and is someone that’s helped every Colombian on board. I don’t think it’s wise to invest money in a player and expect them to play well – they need to acclimatize be happy at home with their family and feel comfortable."
Angulo is given a similar endorsement by Chará and Mosquera, both of whom have not gone unnoticed by rival clubs since their arrival in Portland. Wilkinson says that any further sale would have to benefit the club as well as the player.
"If we can continue to upgrade the squad by selling player X to bring in Y and Z then we will," he said. "We’ve had offers from both within the continent and in Europe, but it hasn’t made sense. If it makes sense from all angles then we’ll consider it more."
However, despite more Colombians looking to move to MLS, Wilkinson says that the Timbers are not looking to invest in more of Chará or Valencia’s compatriots.
"We still think you need quality American players to succeed. It’s important that when we bring the Colombians in they learn the American culture, I think if you start to get eight or nine Colombians then the locker room becomes a concern, not because they are bad people but because the Colombians no longer have to learn English. The dynamic of a locker room changes, which can be a hard cycle to break. There’s very many reasons why we won’t continue to add Colombians right now, and if maybe one was good enough, they may replace one we currently have on board."
It seems fair to suggest, however, that the influx of Colombians to MLS has not reached its peak – and Wilkinson agrees: “If you can offer personal growth [and] consistency with pay, its often easier to get a Colombian that has had trouble with their club. So Colombia will be a viable market for MLS clubs for years to come.”
You can bet that the Timbers’ MLS rivals will be more than happy to draw from such a deep well of talent.