MLS Icons, Carlos Valderrama: The brightest star of MLS 1.0
At first glance, Steve Ralston’s dorm room didn’t look out of the ordinary. There was a bed, some textbooks, and all things you might associate with a student-athlete. Where it differed ever so slightly was how he chose to decorate.
“My roommates and I had a bunch of soccer posters on our wall, and one of them was Carlos [Valderrama],” Ralston, now an assistant coach with the San Jose Earthquakes, told FourFourTwo. “I went from being a senior in college, with a poster of him in my room, to graduating and playing alongside him. It was pretty surreal.”
It wasn’t just the iconic blond blowout hairstyle that made Valderrama stand out. Twice named South American Footballer of the Year, the playmaker loved the big stage: At the 1990 World Cup, his stoppage-time dribble past half the West German defense set up the Freddy Rincon equalizer that carried Colombia past the group stage for the first time ever. Injury robbed him of influence at the 1994 World Cup, but two years later, he would return to the United States in unforgettable style.
We all love to think about having a No. 10, a true playmaker, but there are very few. Carlos was a true No. 10.
Valderrama, nicknamed ‘El Pibe,’ chose to end his illustrious career in MLS, enjoying seven seasons in the league spread across three teams: the Tampa Bay Mutiny, the Miami Fusion and the Colorado Rapids. The Colombian was among the first wave of foreign stars in MLS. His killer final pass ruled the league years before David Beckham was even a twinkle in the eye of the LA Galaxy, and over a decade before David Villa or Sebastian Giovinco arrived. Valderrama was MLS’ first bona-fide star.
The league suspected as much from the start. Ask Nick Sakiewicz, then working as the league’s VP of sponsorship sales. “We were evaluating all the big name players that were being targeted for signing,” Sakiewicz told FourFourTwo. “When Carlos’ name came up, it was an easy decision to sign him. He was one of the best midfielders in the world, had a distinctive identity and the star power to help launch MLS, creating excitement for the fledgling new league in the United States.”
Sakiewicz eventually became president of the Mutiny, where he earned a much closer look at Valderrama, both as a player and a person.
“He was always the first in the training room and on the pitch and the last to leave,” Sakiewicz said, a claim backed up by then-head coach Tim Hankinson. “He was obsessive with attention to detail when it came to performance on the pitch. I think a lot of people that did not know Carlos misunderstood him, because he was not an overly talkative personality.”
It was in Tampa that Valderrama’s star shone brightest. In 2000, under the guidance of Hankinson, the Colombian recorded a staggering 26 assists – still a league record.
“He set a tremendous standard in MLS,” Hankinson told FourFourTwo. “We all love to think about having a No. 10, a true playmaker, but there are very few. There are thousands of imposter No. 10s – players that don’t want to defend, that want the ball at their feet, that want to take all risks, but don’t have the quality to pull it off and lead players to goal-scoring opportunities. Carlos was a true No. 10.
“I believe his vision of the game dictated how that team played, and I think that’s a rarity in soccer. From the opening minute, he was very aware of what the opposing defensive midfielder had planned. Sometimes he would drift out wide and force the defensive midfielder to make a decision — either remain in the middle or follow him out there — which opened up space for other players to work in.”
The Colombian’s appreciation for space was not the only thing that struck his teammates. Valderrama, a star with Colombia and MVP of the 1987 Copa America, was also able to appreciate the skills of his teammates.
“Pibe realized what his teammates’ strengths were,” Greg Lalas, a teammate and now VP of content at MLS, told FourFourTwo. “It was almost less Pibe telling Roy [Lassiter] how to run, and more figuring out how Roy likes to run and playing into that.
“Normally when you have a big star come in, the big star says, ‘no, you have to do this so I look good,’ and that just wasn’t the way Carlos was. He’d figure it out. When Ralston showed up, they never spoke. I think the only thing Pibe ever said to him was, ‘good Stevie, good Stevie.’”
Yet, in talking to those that worked with Valderrama, it becomes clear the midfielder’s influence extended far beyond the playing field. His quiet demeanor suggested someone uncomfortable conversing in English, but in actuality, it represented someone eager to listen before he spoke.
“We were traveling to an away match, and somehow we both got seated in the same row together,” Sakiewicz says. “It was a long flight, and I remember people telling me Carlos didn’t speak English very well, and my Spanish at the time wasn’t so good either. Early on in the flight, another player came and sat down next to me and started to whine about things in the league, and how he should get more playing time and how things should change.
“After the player left, Carlos turned to me and in absolute perfect English explained to me how that player was a malcontent and we needed to get rid of him as soon as possible for the betterment of the team and the culture within the locker room.”
The pair went on to have a three-hour conversation about life and soccer, littered with insightful nuggets from ‘El Pibe.'
“The player that sat next to me was traded in midseason,” Sakiewicz said. “I’m not sure it was because of that trade, but Carlos was right, and we made the playoffs that year.”
A Stately Impression
Granted, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Valderrama in MLS. A move to the nearby Miami Fusion ended unceremoniously after the team unveiled a coaching change just before practice, replacing the Argentine Carlos Cordoba with Brazilian Ivo Wortmann. Valderrama, supposedly disappointed at the manner in which the situation was handled, refused to train and was demoted to the bench before being traded back to Tampa Bay.
“I never had a professional moment with him that wasn’t first-class,” Hankinson said. “Managing Carlos for me was never a problem.”
Pick a side
Clearly, Valderrama was something of a statesman as well as a player.
“He wouldn’t so much teach me with words but actions,” Ralston said. “If he’d play me a ball and I didn’t go somewhere, it was probably better that I didn’t understand what he was saying, as it was probably curse words [laughs]. Eventually, I learned where to play it, where to run, and had a pretty good relationship on the field with him.”
It’s easy to see the influence he had on the Mutiny, and in turn MLS. So much so, in fact, that Hankinson sought to bring him to the Colorado Rapids in 2001 for one last hurrah.
“We missed him on both occasions he left us [at Tampa Bay],” Ralston said. “When he came back from Miami, it was a huge lift, and he was a pretty special player that could change a game. When he left, our team changed and I think the success we had coincided with his presence.”
In his final season in MLS, in 2002, Valderrama finished with an impressive return of 16 assists in 27 games, and although he failed to collect an MLS Cup during his time in the league, his colleagues all agree that he changed the league with his presence.
“What I think Carlos did,” Lalas said, “was teach a lot of people what a certain style of play can be, and that it can succeed in MLS.”