Ezequiel Barco, of Argentina, speaks during a news conference introducing him to the Atlanta United MLS soccer team in Marietta, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Atlanta United has high expectations for a new, young star in its second season after paying an MLS-record transfer fee of $15 million for 18-year-old Barco. Barco joins Atlanta's wave of young stars from South America that also includes Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba and Josef Martinez. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
There is no denying it. This Major League Soccer season will have a Latin flavor to it.
The 2018 MLS campaign officially kicked off Saturday afternoon, and with the start of the year comes an opportunity for new players to emerge and impress. Clubs have retooled and bolstered their rosters with the addition of more Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), and several have used that resource to tap into the South American market with the hopes of landing the next Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti, or Miguel Almirón.
Not every South American signing will live up to their hype or expectations, of course, but it is inevitable that at least a few stand out given the sheer volume of players that have been brought over from that market to raise the level of their respective teams.
Here are the top five South American players to keep an eye on this season:
Reportedly the most expensive signing in MLS history, Barco enters 2018 with huge expectations. The 18-year-old Argentine, who is a youth international, joined Atlanta United in January via a record transfer fee from Independiente.
Barco is replacing the productive Yamil Asad in the dynamic Atlanta attack, and is expected to both match and surpass the impact that his compatriot had on the left flank.
While it is not uncommon to see foreign players struggle in their first season in MLS, Barco has the talent and proven ability to perform at a high level. He helped Independiente win the 2017 Copa Sudamericana, and played regularly for the Argentine club during the past year-and-a-half despite his young age.
What’s more is that the dynamic Designated Player will be playing with other talented South Americans, like Miguel Almirón and Josef Martínez, that will look to combine with him with quick combination passes. The quad injury Barco suffered on Wednesday will delay his MLS debut by four to six weeks, but he should still have no problem lighting
Carlos Vela may be the center piece and star attraction at LAFC, but the expansion club needs Rossi to be just as much as an attacking threat in order to have a shot at enjoying a successful debut season. Rossi, 19, has the tools to be just that, as the Uruguayan showed in 2017 that he can be a difference-maker by netting 10 times in Peñarol’s championship season.
Rossi is more than just a goal-scorer, too. His explosiveness with the ball and versatility can cause opposing defenses headaches, all of which will benefit LA as it tries to find the right combination of starting players that can lead to a playoff appearance. Rossi’s exciting style of play will also allow Vela to operate in the middle without too much defensive pressure, and the two could complement one another very well, and produce plenty of goals, if they develop an understanding.
The New York Red Bulls have their new No. 10, and much like a chunk of their roster he is young and energetic. Kaku, 23, only recently joined the club from Atlético Huracán in Argentina and will need time to get up to speed. Still, much will expected of the Young Designated Player as he fills the shoes of top assist man Sacha Kljestan, who was traded to Orlando City.
The former Argentine youth international, who the Red Bulls pursued for much of the winter, fits the club’s style of play well. He has a good motor that is suited for New York’s high press and also an ability to create, which the team will need in order for Bradley Wright-Phillips to have another standout season up top.
Kaku is not much of a scorer, but he has experience playing at a high level after competing in the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana and is capable of producing moments of magic. The Red Bulls are banking on him providing that, and they could surprise many observers if their playmaker lives up to his potential.
Brought over from Colombian club Millonarios as a Young Designated Player, Mosquera is expected to help bring FC Dallas back into the postseason picture after its ugly fall from grace last year.
The 23-year-old winger has already shown promising flashes of what he can bring to the table in Dallas’ forgettable CONCACAF Champions League series vs. Tauro FC, and those contributions should only grow as he gets more comfortable with his new teammates and surroundings.
FC Dallas could sure use that. The club had issues creating chances and scoring goals on a consistent basis in 2017, which is why it went out and chased Mosquera for the better part of the offseason.
The Colombian’s skill on the ball and ability to make things happen in the final third are his strengths, and that should benefit FC Dallas, especially if he opens things up for teammates like Maximiliano Urruti, Mauro Diaz, and Michael Barrios.
A Peruvian international, Polo joined the Timbers this offseason via a year-long loan from Mexican side Morelia. The 23-year-old midfielder will bring speed and lots of it to the Portland attack, and that should help stretch opposing defenses while taking some of the attention off of reigning MLS MVP Diego Valeri and striker Fanendo Adi.
Polo has never been much of a goal-scorer, his career-high in a single season since turning pro in 2011 is four tallies, but he might be able to surpass that total this year if he can make the same type of dangerous diagonal runs from wide positions that helped him land at Inter Milan a few years ago.
Polo will also be fighting to make Peru’s World Cup team this summer, so the Timbers will be getting a very motivated player that can help wreak havoc on opposing teams. If he makes good use of his speed and capitalizes on his chances, the Timbers could very well make a run at MLS Cup and may opt to sign him permanently.