South American success now a path to MLS as much as to Europe's elite
At the end of each year, the El Pais newspaper in Uruguay organises a survey to crown the best player of the Americas. The 2018 winner, with a commanding 41 percent of the vote, was River Plate's attacking midfielder Gonzalo "Pity" Martinez -- a player South American fans will not be seeing for a while. Martinez announced after the Club World Cup he was taking his left-footed flair to the United States to join Atlanta United in Major League Soccer.
Two conclusions can be drawn from this. One is the relative decline of club football in South America -- which, incidentally, has been cruelly highlighted year after year in the Club World Cup. The player considered the best in the region is not coveted by major European clubs; as was the case with his predecessor as El Pais winner, playmaker Luan, who is still with Gremio; or 2016 winner Miguel Borja, a Colombian centre forward, who like 2015 winner Carlos Sanchez, a Uruguayan midfielder, have ended up in Brazil. Being outstanding in South America is no longer seen as a pathway to greatness in Europe. Most of these players won the award in their mid-20s, at a time when their "advanced" age is already considered a cause for concern by the big European clubs.
The other conclusion is how this serves as proof of the rise and consolidation of MLS, which is now able to attract top talent from a club as big as River Plate. Such conclusions might also be confirmed by another recent MLS acquisition -- Peru's Marcos Lopez, who is leaving domestic champions Sporting Cristal to join the San Jose Earthquakes.
The interesting point here is that Lopez is a player on the way up. He just turned 19 and last year was his breakthrough season. In reports of the transaction, the U.S. news have tended to refer to Lopez as a defender. This, at best, is a half truth. He began his career at left-back and played there for his country in the 2017 South American Under-20 Championships. But he has been pushed much further forward. He spent 2018 operating wide on the left of a front three, using explosion and technique to burst in towards the penalty area. He had quite a year -- going to Russia as part of the sparring team, helping Peru prepare for their World Cup games, and doing so well that he was handed his international debut in September, coming on off the bench to play an attacking midfield role for the last 25 minutes of a 2-1 defeat to Germany.
Before the rise of MLS, Lopez would have almost certainly stayed in Peru and he would have had a fascinating year ahead of him. Cristal were dominant in last year's domestic competition. They pressed their opponent with an intensity very rarely seen in Peruvian football, and steamrolled most of their opponents. But the test is the Copa Libertadores -- where, ever since Cristal came close to the title in 1997, the record of Peruvian clubs has been nothing short of disastrous. Real Garcilaso were shock quarterfinalists in 2013. That aside, in the current century on only 5 other occasions has a Peruvian club made it out of the group phase -- all to be rapidly eliminated when the knockout games started. Cristal last qualified from the group phase in 2004. They have played nine subsequent versions of the competition without recording the same success.
And so it would have been fascinating to see how Cristal, and young star Lopez, handled the 2019 Libertadores. But coach Mario Salas has already jumped ship, returning to his native Chile to take charge of Santiago giants Colo Colo. And Marcos Lopez, the club's brightest young talent, has now been allowed to break north.
The motives are clearly financial. On top of the terms of the deal, Cristal reportedly retain a 20 percent stake in the player. They are clearly hoping that he will be making a big money move to Europe after catching the eye not in the Copa Libertadores, but in MLS.
It is indeed a sign of the times.