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High-profile influx of Latin American talent is altering Major League Soccer for the best

The arrival of Javier Hernandez and other ambitious Latin American players is a boon for MLS. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)

There’s a shift happening in Major League Soccer that can’t be ignored. 

Say goodbye to the days of “retirement league” labels and welcome a fresh batch of highly ambitious players arriving from various parts of the world. The impact of stars like David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was vital for building exposure. But this is officially a new era. 

Take a look at some of the biggest offseason acquisitions and you’ll notice a trend of Latin American players jumping on board. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was the biggest splash, with the Los Angeles Galaxy reportedly signing the Mexican star on Friday.

Another prime example is new Sporting Kansas City striker Alan Pulido, the leading scorer during Liga MX’s Apertura season last fall. With aspirations of donning the Mexican national team jersey again, Pulido saw the move to MLS as a no-brainer.

“The decision I made to be here is because the league has become very competitive, they’ve brought in players of high caliber,” Pulido said. “The quality has improved and it also makes me happy that there are more and more Mexicans here.”

Pulido was one of 30 players made available as part of an MLS media roundtable held at Banc of California Stadium ahead of kickoff for the 25th season. And even in Carlos Vela’s kingdom, the newcomer wasn’t about to hold back. 

“I hope to be able to take the Golden Boot from Carlos Vela,” Pulido said. “It’ll be difficult but nothing is impossible.”

Alan Pulido led Liga MX Apertura in scoring last fall with Guadalajara, and now he's leading the line for Sporting KC. (Photo by Alfredo Moya/Jam Media/Getty Images)

Another notable player who made the Liga MX-MLS switch this winter was midfielder Lucas Zelarayan. The Argentine arrived in Columbus with a club-record transfer fee, and he got the coveted No. 10 jersey to play the role he often did with Tigres UANL, one of the best teams on the continent.

“Very happy to be here, this is a huge step in my career,” Zelarayan said. “MLS is growing a lot and has great players, some arriving and some that were already here. It has converted itself into a very interesting league.”

Soccer in the United States is receiving as much notoriety as it ever has, and the success of foreign players is part of the reason why.

Last season’s trophy winners were led largely by South Americans. U.S. Open Cup champion Atlanta United benefitted from the additions of Argentinians Gonzalo Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco, as well as 2018 league MVP and Venezuela native Josef Martinez. LAFC, which has been one of the best at infiltrating the South American market, rostered five in a historic Supporters’ Shield campaign and added another pair this offseason.

The Seattle Sounders followed the path of Peruvian Raul Ruidiaz’s destruction right to MLS Cup. His teammate Nicolas Lodeiro, flashing a crisp new jacket stitched with the latest gold championship star, broke it down simply.

“Us South Americans have futbol in our blood, and I think that’s what attracts people in the United States and other countries to us,” he said. “They know the latin player lives futbol with a lot of passion, so that’s why you see them bring a lot of us over here, and sometimes we provide the upgrade teams need.”

What players are saying about Chicharito

The Los Angeles Galaxy reportedly just made one of the biggest signings in league history, and Javier Hernandez’s imminent arrival has people in a frenzy from L.A. to Guadalajara.

Players on hand at Banc of California Stadium were excited, too.

Nani (Orlando City): “More quality, another star player. He’s an old friend, beautiful moments at Man United. We shared the dressing room for a long time. I know him well, he’s a great person.”

Mauro Manotas (Houston Dynamo): “He is going to attract more latin fans and I’m happy because his [likely] debut game would be at our stadium, which will definitely be sold out, and that motivates me as a player because playing in that type of atmosphere is special.”

Jonathan dos Santos (Galaxy): “I’m ready for next season. Hopefully, we’ll see. We need him.”

Orlando City forward Nani spent several seasons with Javier Hernandez at Manchester United. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Miami, Nashville ready to make mark

At this point the intrigue of Inter Miami is larger than what we actually know, but with an owner like David Beckham in a market like that, expectations are already higher than temperatures on South Beach.

What they’re promising is a certain type of style and a rowdy fanbase to back a squad that’s still being rounded out. It already includes 19-year-old Argentinians Matias Pellegrini and Julian Carranza.

Philadelphia Union star and South Florida native Alejandro Bedoya weighed in on the anticipation.

“I think a lot of eyes are on them, not just here but all over the world, to see what they do,” he said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how they come together as a team, how they embrace that kind of melting pot, diversity, South American flare/influence.”

Nashville SC has its own young players adapting to a different country in 23-year-old Costa Rican Randall Leal and 24-year-old German midfielder Hany Mukhtar, the club’s first designated player. Mukhtar has only been able to spend a few days in Tennessee, and he doesn’t know much about the Music City besides country.

Does he listen to that kind of music?

“No, sorry,” he laughed.

While those two don’t have MLS experience yet, one of their teammates certainly does and was characteristically animated in discussing his new venture.

“I know the city is buzzing. Everything you hear from the people in the city, people involved in the club is nothing but positive things,” said Dax McCarty, who is entering his 15th season. “This was a new challenge for me and something I felt really grateful for, because I was actively involved in the process of getting to choose where I ended up, and Nashville was at the very top of that list.”

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