Mexican star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez capped a busy offseason that saw talent pass on Liga MX opportunities in favor of playing in Major League Soccer.
Nine players made the jump directly from Liga MX to MLS during the offseason, with Chicharito leaving Europe to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy instead of one of the clubs in his native Mexico.
Their arrival reflects the continuation of a recent trend as players in the Mexican leagues move north.
MLS has become particularly attractive to Mexican strikers who are looking to prove themselves on a big stage. Before signing with Sporting Kansas City in December, Alan Pulido found many clubs in Liga MX looked to outsource certain positions — particularly his role as a central striker — to foreign players.
This made it difficult for Mexican stars to break out in their home league. But in MLS, Pulido felt Mexican strikers have more room to grow. That opportunity was highlighted last year when Carlos Vela broke the league’s scoring record in his second season with LAFC.
“I hope to take that away,” Pulido joked.
MLS offers Mexican players such as Pulido one thing in common — opportunity.
“This league here is an important window for players,” Pulido said. “It used to be the fact that coming here was seen as taking a step back in our careers. That is no longer the case. It really depends on the mentality of each player. Mexican players don’t doubt coming here to MLS.”
For Darwin Quintero, that shift in perspective is evident every time he steps on the pitch.
The Colombian forward left Club América after four seasons to join Minnesota United in 2018 before he was traded to the Houston Dynamo for the 2020 season. In less than a decade, he said that he’s seen a steep change in the style and quality of MLS play.
“From the outside looking in, when I would come here when I played in Mexico, I definitely felt how physical the league was,” Quintero said through a translator. “I had two games where it just felt like they would just constantly tackle me. And you just had the understanding that this was a physical league. Now it’s evolved. You see everyone wanting to play more on the ground. If we want this league to be one of the top in the region, that’s how you get there.”
There’s a wide range of factors leading to this change in perspective surrounding MLS. For players who strive to earn a spot on the Mexican national team, El Tri manager Tata Martino’s time in MLS was particularly important in changing opinions of the league.
Although Martino only spent two seasons in MLS — leading Atlanta United to the MLS Cup — his presence validated the league in Mexico, turning it into a destination for players eager to earn spots on El Tri’s roster.
“The fact that he looks at the league, that’s very important,” Pulido said of Martino. “Part of the reason why I chose to come to MLS is because of that, because I want to return to the Mexican national team.”
To Columbus Crew midfielder Lucas Zelarayán, part of the animosity toward MLS was fueled by results in the Club Champions League, where Liga MX teams typically dominate MLS clubs.
But he feels a change in that trend could be coming as MLS clubs continue to snag talented players looking to grow in earlier stages of their careers.
“Not only do Liga MX players choose MLS, but also players around the world,” Zelarayán said. “MLS is a league that is growing a lot. There are other players that are also doing things right that are having success here and they make this league attractive.”
MLS has often struggled to ignore comparisons to other leagues. As more Mexican fans and Latino players continue to turn their attention to the league, players expect the rivalry between the neighboring leagues to heat up.
Unlike in past years when Mexican club teams were viewed more favorably, Quintero said the atmosphere of MLS is beginning to become comparable to Liga MX due to the quality of facilities and lifestyle it offers to its players.
“There’s always a rivalry,” Quintero said. “For me, I think that the passion and how people live the game is a little bit different in Mexico in terms that it’s more day to day. That’s something you feel going into the game. But when you look at the infrastructure in other parts of the game here in the U.S., the U.S. is steps above what you will find anywhere else in North America.”
The rivalry between the two leagues is unlikely to fade any time soon. But Pulido hopes Mexican fans can be understanding about players moving to MLS.
Despite negative reaction from many fans in Mexico, Pulido said the move was the best decision for his career.
“In Mexico I do think they get upset when a Mexican player chooses to come to MLS over Liga MX,” Pulido said. “But players really analyze their decisions. The league here has changed a lot. Personally, I chose to come here because I am the type of player that enjoys challenges. This is a challenge that makes me very happy.”