MLS not Argentina, Mexico challenges Brazil’s dominance in America

A new force is in town, threatening the power of the Brazilian league to attract the best Latin American soccer talent: Major League Soccer.

North American MLS has already overtaken top divisions Argentina and Mexico as the main challenger to Brazilian supremacy.

This is thanks in part to a change in strategy.

Rather than attempting to garner attention by signing star names from European leagues seeking a payday before retirement, MLS is now competing for the young Latin American gems who would otherwise travel to Brazil en route to Europe.

A tactic that has not only improved the level of a league only founded in 1996, but also brings profits when the European teams call.

“It’s part of the vision that team owners (MLS) had to transform into one of the big leagues at world level,” Alfonso Mondelo, MLS competitions director, told AFP.

– From begging to calling –

As of 2021, MLS has been the league that has spent the most on transfer fees in America, according to AFP’s analysis of transfer reports from world football’s governing body FIFA.

In 2021, MLS spent $159.9 million on transfers: three times more than Brazil, five times more than Mexico and 11 times more than Argentina.

The next year, as the other three leagues recovered from the pandemic, they still outperformed the Argentine and Mexican leagues by more than two-to-one and the Brazilian league by 1.6-to-one.

Those numbers are a far cry from the English Premier League, where clubs spent nearly $900m in the January transfer window alone.

“In the early years of MLS, you almost had to beg the players, now they’re coming to us,” said Mondelo.

In February 2022, Atlanta United paid Argentinian club Velez Sarsfield $16 million for Thiago Almada.

“I want to have a good season and have the opportunity to go to Europe,” he said at the time.

Ten months later, he became the first active MLS player to win the World Cup.

Almada, now 21, has been a sensation this year, scoring a string of stunning goals for his club and scoring his first international goal in just his third spell with the Albiceleste last week.

Before Almada, Atlanta bought Paraguayan Miguel Almiron from Argentina’s Lanus and sold him to Newcastle United three years later.

– USA become top market –

The new strategy is bearing fruit for MLS, whose 29-team roster is valued at $1.25bn.

“The United States will take first place in terms of market value because they know how to do huge deals. They are gradually growing in the right way,” said Brazilian football agent Marcelo Mascagni.

But the teams still have a lot of catching up to do on the field.

They have won the top CONCACAF competition just three times, compared to 37 for Mexican teams.

“It’s important to first become the most important league in CONCACAF – our next challenge – and then see how we can reach the level of the best leagues in the world,” said Mondelo.

Brazil still has what MLS is looking for: continental dominance. Flamengo and Palmeiras have won the last four Copa Libertadores titles together.

Despite the financial difficulties faced by its teams, Brazil is an important production site for talented players, allowing clubs to build competitive squads.

They have also managed to attract stars like Uruguayan Luis Suarez, Chilean Arturo Vidal and Brazilian Marcelo in the twilight of their careers.

Brazilian teams also earn more from sales than anywhere else in America.

In 2022, the Brazilian league sold 998 players for US$267.2 million, almost as much as Argentina (US$146.6 million) and MLS (US$135.2 million) combined, according to FIFA.

But that number was 30 percent down on 2018, despite selling 166 more players.

“Disorganization” is to blame, according to Mascagni, with Brazilian clubs not selling at the best time and European clubs poaching Brazilian talent at an increasingly younger age.

– “USA in focus” –

The problem for Argentinian clubs is the same that affects the whole country: the shortage of dollars used for international transfers, the devaluation of the peso and high inflation.

Argentina teams spent 20 percent less on transfers and brought in 26 percent less revenue in 2022 compared to 2018.

The young hopefuls, who previously signed them from other South American countries, are now traveling to Brazil and the MLS.

The Argentine league is ageing: an average of 26.7 years in 2022 versus 24 in 2018.

“Argentina is not an attractive league, apart from River Plate and Boca Juniors,” said transfer specialist Jaime Rascon.

“They have a currency devaluation that makes it difficult for any footballer to maintain their spending power and lifestyle.”

Foreign clubs are also wary of selling players to Argentina after some non-payment issues emerged.

“Doing business with the United States has become a priority,” said Ramiro Ruiz, president of Colombia’s Envigado team.

They sold Colombia international James Rodriguez to Argentina’s Banfield in 2008, after which he moved to Europe and eventually joined Real Madrid.

But Envigado sold his latest gem, Forward Jhon Jader Duran, to Chicago Fire, who then shipped it to Aston Villa in January for nearly $18 million.

However, Argentina has an advantage as it is the second largest exporter of players in the world, according to FIFA, with currently more than 1,000 players in foreign leagues – half as many as Brazilians abroad.

Argentinian clubs often sell top young players directly to big European clubs, such as Julian Alvarez’s transfer from River Plate to Manchester City for a reported €21.4m.

In the past, Mexican clubs could also spend huge transfer fees and offer attractive salaries. But not anymore.

Over the past five years, transfer spend has fallen by more than a third and fees received by 50 percent.


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