Reaching Lodeiro: The evolution of MLS' South American playmakers

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Nicolas Lodeiro is the latest success story in a decade of South Americans who have each uniquely shaped MLS, Richard Farley recounts.

It was night-and-day, so much so you had to be suspicious. The entire atmosphere around the Seattle Sounders felt different, and the team hadn’t even played another game. It was still 6-12-2, still mired in ninth place in the 10-team Western Conference, and still coming off a loss in which the team had been outshot, 19-1. For a visit from one of the league’s title favorites, the LA Galaxy, CenturyLink Field should have felt like a morgue.

On the contrary. Within minutes of that July 31 kickoff, that excitement was tangible, if muted. The initial trepidation about the post-Sigi Schmid Sounders had faded, and quickly. The franchise’s first game without its departed long-time head coach was also the introduction of a man who promised to reverse the team’s sinking fortunes. From the first moments of Nicolas Lodeiro’s debut it was clear, if on effort alone, the Uruguayan international would give this suddenly wayward franchise hope.

Seattle drew that match, 1-1, with Lodeiro’s work rate and creativity coming in from the right making him an immediate favorite with the Sounders’ faithful. He’d eventually move inside, becoming the team’s focal point through the middle and leading Seattle to one of the most remarkable regular-season turnarounds in Major League Soccer history. On Saturday, that same club that dwelt near the bottom of the West for most of the season will represent the conference in Toronto, at MLS Cup. The Sounders are one win away from the only domestic honor they’ve never claimed.

It’s hard to overstate Lodeiro’s role in that revival, partially because, in terms of play if not team results, we’ve seen this kind of impact before. Though Lodeiro may prove transcendent, the last eight years of Major League Soccer have been framed by the league’s surge in playmaking talent, many of whom are eschewing the uncertainties of South America for stability to the north. With that choice comes a level of technical quality the league sorely lacked in the previous decade.

Come the late 2000s, however, MLS had imported the creators who would begin change the landscape, guiding the league away from the unduly athletic, direct circuit it’d been for much of its first decade. By 2008, the influence of names like Schelotto, Ferreira and Morales began establishing a new legacy, one that’s given a new face to Major League Soccer

Guillermo Barros Schelotto

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

MLS has always had a strong international playmaker presence, from the league’s initial days of Colombian conductor Carlos Valderrama to the play of Argentine Christian Gomez between the league’s contraction (2002) and regrowth (2005).  That period, however, can also been seen as the league’s stylistic nadir, with the creativity from wide players like Brad Davis, Terry Cooke and Ronnie O’Brien becoming more common sources of goals.

Schletto changed that. A Boca Juniors legend by the time he arrived in 2007, the 5-foot-7 playmaker seemed like the archetype of what shouldn’t work in Major League Soccer. Instead, with help from Columbus head coach Sigi Schmid (who built his team’s entire setup around the four-time Libertadores champion), Schelotto forged a new model. The same physicality, speed, and athleticism that was supposed to make players like him a poor fit for the North American game could be used to create space for them.

That’s exactly what Schmid did. The 2008 team Schelotto led to MLS Cup had Alejandro Moreno and Steven Lenhart pushing the opposing line, U.S. internationals Eddie Gaven and Robbie Rogers stretching the field out wide, and MLS stalwarts-to-be Brad Evans and Brian Carroll fortifying the team through the middle. At the end of Schelotto’s second season, Columbus claimed it’s only MLS title, with the league’s new No. 10 standard adding MLS Cup MVP to his regular season Most Valuable Player honors.

Schelotto’s heyday in Major League Soccer would prove relatively short, though it still stands as one of the most productive four-year runs in league history. Over 102 regular season games, Schelotto scored 32 times, added 41 assists, claimed an MLS Cup and two Supporters’ Shields (2008, 2009), an MVP, two Best XI spots, and an MLS Cup MVP.

When MLS has its own Hall of Fame, voters will have to wrestle with Schelotto’s short career; still, the Boca icon revitalized the league’s playmaker’s role, kickstaring a new era for Major League Soccer. That should count for a lot.

David Ferreira

Matt Strasen-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Strasen-USA TODAY Sports

Into the world Schelotto created stepped David Ferreira, a 39-time Colombian international who’d won three league titles with America de Cali back home. Off that early 2000s success, Ferreira earned a move to Brazil, though when that turned sour, the 5-foot-5 dynamo had to look beyond South America – first to Saudi Arabia; then, more successfully, to Frisco, Texas.

When Ferreira arrived in 2009, FC Dallas was coming off its first season without playoff soccer since rebranding in 2004.  Things only got worse Dallas, slipping from fifth to seventh in the conference, but the underlying performance was still there. For the fifth straight season, Dallas had a positive goal difference. All the team needed as something to get it over the top.

Ferreira was part of the answer, but thanks to his emergence, head coach Schellas Hyndman was able to adjust his team’s style to address its biggest problem: goal prevention. Only one team had a worse defensive record in 2008 than Dallas, but tailoring a team around Ferreira’s ability to execute on the counter, Hyndman’s 2009 squad only allowed conceded 28 goals, down 19 from the year before.

By the time Dallas reached the 2010 MLS Cup final, Ferreira had burners Brek Shea, Atiba Harris and Marvin Chavez stretching the field in all directions around him. Daniel Hernandez and Dax McCarty did the dirty work in front of the defense, leaving Ferreira to serve an almost identical role to Schelotto. Like his Crew counterpart, Ferreira lacked size, speed and strength, but just like Columbus did with Schelotto, Dallas would built its entire team around him.

Unlike the Crew, though, Dallas would come up just short of a title, losing to Colorado in extra time in Toronto. And unlike Schelotto as an individual, Ferreira didn’t have another elite season in him. After winning MVP in 2010 and collecting 16 goals and 20 assists in his first two campaigns, Ferreira would only appear in 53 games over his final three years, collecting eight goals and 19 assists.

Ferreira’s lasting legacy may be one of confirmation. Whereas Schelotto could have looked like an exception if nobody followed the Crew’s model, Ferreira provided more proof. The talents from South America that would come to see MLS as a reprieve would also redefine the league. And the next example was already in tow.

NEXT: What's now and what's the future after Lodeiro?