Legal Immigration, Soccer Style

The political landscape surrounding US/Mexico borders and legal and illegal immigration is surrounded by strong emotions, loud arguments and both educated and ridiculous opinions.

Luckily, this is a soccer blog, not a political blog. My opinions on the US/Mexico immigration issue are not the focus on this post.

I won’t be talking about whether Arizona’s attempts at a stricter new State law should mean they never see an MLS team or that we patriotically move them up to next in line for expansion and award them the Arizona Cosmos tomorrow.

I won’t discuss whether lettuce will cost us $24 a head if we cut off the cheap labor influx or if finally jobs will open up for hard working Americans.

Well, actually, there are some cross-border jobs worth discussing here.

That of Mexican soccer players coming to MLS, and (more importantly) the American players heading to Mexico to play professionally – potentially as the Mexican Football Federation’s version of cheap imported labor?

Mexican players have always played a part in MLS as those of us around that first season remember Jorge Campos and his acrobatic and unpredictable goalkeeping.  But starting with Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and now followed by Nery Castillo and Rafa Marquez, and Omar Bravo in 2011, it feels as if MLS has gained a new relevance for Mexican players.

On the flip side, more American players are finding options in Mexico as attractive.  This too, is nothing new.  In fact, Tab Ramos, Mike Sorber and Marcelo Balboa all had stints in the Mexican first division before MLS was even up and running.

But with American World Cup players José Francisco Torres and Herculez Gomez playing in the Mexican first division, USA’s Jonathan Bornstein having decided to play in Mexico after this season, and the USA going as far as to persuade former Mexican player Edgar Castillo to switch allegiances and play for the USA, things are getting more and more interesting with this cross-border soccer trade.

I like having the best American players playing in MLS –among other reasons, this is because most (not all) international experiences don’t seem to bring as much development as they promise.  But I certainly do not get upset by players trying their luck elsewhere, and find it interesting that so few end up in Mexico, especially give the nearby location, easier travel to US National Team’s home and CONCACAF games and historically good pay ranges.

The question then becomes: When does it make sense for a US player to look to play in Mexico, as opposed to MLS or whatever European options are open to them?

Obviously, there is no black and white answer here.  I think there are a number of interesting reasons that American players might choose the Mexican league.  Including the fact that they:

  • can often make more money than other options, like MLS.
  • simply want to try something different.
  • have gotten overlooked by MLS.
  • think their skill sets are more suited for the Mexican league game.
  • are looking to better develop (or round-out) their skills.

For this discussion, I think the last reason is most interesting.

Comparing league skill and style is certainly no simple task, but to move forward we can at least make an assumption or two that seems reasonable.   Here are two that seem to be generally accepted:

  • The soccer played in the Mexican first division is more tactical, patient and (often) skillful than MLS.
  • The soccer played in MLS is typically faster, more physical and more direct than in Mexico.
  • Mexican first division rosters tend to be “deeper” with talent than their MLS counterparts.

If there was more of an MLS / Mexican league melting pot, one might think the ingredients exist for better player development by combining the strengths of each individual league.  This development would help prepare players for the rigors of National team duty or for grooming future stars that want to head to Europe and conquer bigger challenges.

For instance, what if some of our current crop of young players, whose pace outweighs their tactical awareness or ball skills, had spent or would spend a couple years in Mexico.

If there was a program (either between clubs or leagues) that would allow players like Robbie Rogers, Kevin Alston, Corey Ashe, Robbie Findley (and we could go on) to spend time on loan, or otherwise, playing in the Mexican league I would think they would all end up better players for the experience.

Even better could be a program that swapped young Mexican talent with young American talent for a year.  The Americans would hopefully get the tactical skill development they need, and the Mexican players would get a taste of a more rough and tumble game that would prepare them for different experiences they might see in Europe or elsewhere.

Of course, the challenge is that none of these players would be guaranteed playing time, or to break into a starting lineup in Mexico.   But if the program was a rotational program and the player knew he wasn’t “stuck” in a bad situation, they would likely be less disheartened by such struggles.

A much more out-of-the-box idea for overcoming the playing time challenge – and one undoubtedly fraught with countless issues, but nonetheless interesting – would be to find a way for a “traveling only” (no home stadium) club of young up-and-coming stars to play in the opposite country’s league for a year.   They would dually represent their country (USA) and their MLS club.

Sure, there are countless reasons why this might not work, but even if you inserted an “MLS Junior All Star Team” into the Mexican league only once every four years (pick any number, since we are out to lunch anyway) and did the opposite insertion of a “Mexican Junior All Start Team” into MLS it would be rather interesting for player development, interest in MLS from the Mexican population in the US and increased rivalry between the leagues.

I know this will never work.

I know we want to grow our own development capabilities (and need to.)

I know I’m alone on Mars here.

I just hope other people are thinking outside the box on how to leverage these two differing skill sets, interest levels and marketing potential in new ways that do make sense.

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11 thoughts on “Legal Immigration, Soccer Style

  1. Great points. Additionally, I think that the USA-Mexico has gotten friendlier and more respectful on both sides. For decades Mexico enjoyed beating up on the USA, as it was one area (along with cuisine) where they were clearly superior to their northern neighbors. Despite the fact that they were considered arch rivals, it was a lopsided rivalry in favor of Mexico.

    In the years leading up to and then through the 2002 World Cup, that changed. The USA become the better team in head-to-head matches, punctuated by the 2-0 victory in Korea.

    At that point the USA had established itself as a respectable soccer country, and thus Mexican players and fans no longer needed to feel (quite as) ashamed when they lost to Los Gringos.

    Some Mexican players such as Cuahtemoc Blanco were notably brutal when playing the USA. I can still remember one game when I thought that he was rip Pablo Mastroeni’s head off. Back then, never in a million years did I (nor anyone else in the US Soccer community) think that Blanco would one day be playing in MLS.

    Just as importantly, the 02 WC completely changed the landscape of allegiance amongst Mexican-Americans. I watched that game at Los Coronitas, a bar in San Francisco’s predominantly Mexican Mission District. During the game I was the only one openly rooting for the USA, but afterwards there were at least half a dozen people who switched their support to the USA right on the spot. As one of them put it, “I’ve been in this country for 30 years and am proud to be an American. I’ve always rooted for Mexico because I’m proud of my heritage and because the US just wasn’t any good. But things are different now.” Such sentiment would have been unfathomable before that game.

    Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of the Super Liga. Although technially they’re meaningless exhibition games, they make a ton of money – mostly coming from the afforementioned Mexican-American community. And as with most things in life, especially soccer/futbol, it’s all about the money. If the Mexican League teams can expand their appeal to US fans by signing players like Herculez and Torres, then they’ll keep doing it. And if players like Blanco and Marquez can add to their own personal commercial appeal by playing in Chicago and New York, then they’re going to keep doing it.

  2. I enjoy your thinking outside the box, but I don’t think a traveling team with no home would work. It doesn’t in other sports (notably the “Road Warriors” of the Atlantic League in minor league baseball) and it kind of reminds me of the ill-fated NASL “Team America” experiment.

    If you’re asking me the reason more American players don’t end up in Mexico is a prejudice on the part of Mexican teams that American players aren’t good enough. That’s obviously starting to change but I still don’t think the powers that be in the Mexican League think American players are “for real.”

    • Jim, thanks for the comment.

      I’m not sure it would work either, frankly. (It may have come to me while I was writing, but I’ll never admit it.)

      However, the thought of a Mexi-MLS team that had a pull from all the best Mexican team fan-bases (made up of young, but known players for a year) would maybe help drive interest in MLS down below the border (and, ahem, above the border) and then, perhaps, that would help your second point — a realization that we are very much “for real.” Which is coming either way.

      That said, it was an improbable idea from the get-go.

    • That was the original plan for Chivas USA, especially since Chivas de Guadalajara prides itself on its Mexicans-only policy. However, ownership soon realized that their fans were paying good money for tickets, and would thus much rather see a winning team than a Latinos/Mexicans-only team. Keep in mind that many Mexican-Americans are just as likely (if not more likely) to identify with an American player as they are with an Argentinian or Colombian player.

      Chivas USA were also the first MLS expansion team in a market that already had a team (the Galaxy), and they were hoping to steal away Galaxy’s Latino/Mexican fan base. It didn’t work, partly because many of those fans prided themselves on the fact that the Galaxy had become a Mexican-American institution, as opposed to Chivas which was seen as an “old world” team. Galaxy have also been one of the more successful MLS clubs, so Chivas didn’t stand much chance of poaching that fan base without putting a quality product on the field.

      The Chivas brand was already enough to attract some of those fans, but by limiting themselves to just Latino/Mexican players then they would risked limiting their appeal to the rest of LA’s diverse population.

      Unofficially, I think that the club also would have faced serious legal obstacles and/or public backlash had they pursued a Latinos-only policy.

    • I once wrote a little piece about Chivas as well, almost exactly a year ago. (not to cross-promote, but what the heck) here: http://wp.me/pAvxK-2C

      My view was that Vergara should maybe have stuck to his guns – I think some panic might have crept in.

      Matt has some interesting points. Sure, the Galaxy has a presence in LA already, but there’s enough Mexican population in LA to support a few teams based just on population, I’d think.

      Another point Matt made was that there could be some level of public/fan blowback to a Mexican(ish) only team. So what? Fans love to love and love to hate. 🙂

      Also, it’s funny, Jim you mentioned the “Team USA” concept earlier. I had forgotten an old thread on an MLS-version of that as well. But his one would have had a home… Philly. (I was following up on a though in Yanks Abroad.) http://wp.me/pAvxK-43

      Perhaps I tend toward gimmickry? Some self examination required. Heh, heh.

      • In marketing, the goal is to cast as wide of a net as possible. Sure appealing to Mexican-Americans makes sense for a soccer team, but why limit your appeal to just Mexican-Americans? As I mentioned, the Chivas brand is already appealing to them, so there’s really no need to take the extra step of signing only Mexican/Latino players.

      • Matt – Not so sure that marketing’s goal is solely to cast a wide net. That’s true of awareness marketing.

        However, effective marketing focuses on the target market (likely consumer) and getting them through the funnel of awareness, consideration and purchase. Being aware and buying a ticket are very different.

        Spreading thin marketing dollars to a wide-net to get actual ticket buyers is maybe not the easiest investment.

        Differentiating your product (and one way would be creating that MexiMLS team, but certainly not the only way) is one way to get loyal, purchasing customers.

        In a shared market – w/ the Galaxy – that differentiation might have been MORE key rather than less.

        Interesting discussion either way.

      • Good points, Bob, but they seem to have been doing just fine in terms of marketing. I think the long-term goal is putting a quality team on the field. Remember that with their original Mexicans/Latinos-only plan, they went 1-8-1 in their first 10 games, with that lone win coming against fellow expansion club Real Salt Lake (I hate that name so very much).

        And given the intense rivalry between Chivas de Guadalajara and Club America in Mexico and large number of Aguilas fans in LA, it also wouldn’t be reasonable for them to assume that they could capture the entire Mexican-American market in the first place.

  3. Matt,

    You make some good points and it would seem that NOW they are attempting to appeal to everyone but considering they just starting advertising in English last season and the original plan was “Adios Soccer, Hola Futbol”/”It’s the Latins versus the gringos” (I’m fairly sure that’s a direct Vergara quote) the original idea was heavily Mexican. They definitely seemed to think MLS was a Mickey Mouse league that any bunch they threw out there could win, especially if they had some actual Mexicans on the squad. When that failed, Vergara high-tailed out of the States leaving poor Antonio Que to get his hair dyed green.

    I’m about as far away from LA as you can get in this country (Massachusetts) but it would seem like they’re still trying to overcome that damage. I normally am against rebranding but why are you going to go out to see a Chivas team that isn’t really Chivas when the Original Formula is easily seen on TV and is (relatively) so close? Can they carve out a name strictly for themselves in such a shadow? I’m not certain. They seem to moving in the right direction as of late.

    I think getting out of HDC and building their own house would go a long way towards helping matters. However that raises another question. What would the reaction of Mexican Chivas fans be to the news that Vergara was dropping multiple millions on the little brother team instead of shoveling back into the “real” Goats? This is where all this “sister club”/spinoff business gets tricky. Ajax Cape Town, anybody?

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