Marquez, Bravo, and Castillo lead the new wave of Mexicans to join MLS.
Getty Images, Mexsport

Commentary: Why Mexican stars are coming to MLS

Since Major League Soccer’s inaugural campaign in 1996, the league has received Mexican stars with open arms, and a number of them have returned the love right back, if for different reasons and with different end results.

The latest representatives of our neighbors to the south are Rafa Márquez, current Mexico captain and one of the nation’s most successful players ever; Nery Castillo, a talented attacker that had unprecedented success in Greece before moving to bigger European teams; and the newly inked Omar Bravo, a Chivas de Guadalajara idol and the team’s second all-time leading scorer, who has signed a deal to join the Kansas City Wizards next year.

“I think it’s normal [that Mexicans come to play in MLS],” Márquez said last week at his official presentation as a member of the New York Red Bulls. “Just like us Mexicans have a lot of influence on other things, why not in soccer? There are a lot of Mexicans, a lot of communities spread throughout the US, and I think that it’s just normal that Mexicans come to this league.”

Márquez’s allusion to the large Mexican community—and the larger Hispanic one, as a whole—recognizes one of the major driving forces of soccer in the US. Both MLS officials and the players know that the Mexican population in the States is an important and fast-growing demographic, which is why Mexican stars are increasingly seeing MLS as a viable option.

The appeal has actually been there since the league’s inception. At first, top Mexican players realized that they could earn a decent amount of money—paid on time and in dollars—by playing in the US. Money aside, it also gave their countrymen someone to cheer for and follow in their new hometowns.

The first two Tri stars to realize this were Jorge Campos and the legendary Hugo Sánchez, who both joined MLS in its first season and kicked off their MLS careers in cities with large Mexican populations.

Sánchez, who had wildly successful stints with Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, joined the then-named Dallas Burn. The buzz he generated was incredible, to the point that he was handed babies to kiss when he arrived at Dallas’ airport.

Campos, the neon-clad, cat-like ‘keeper, helped the LA Galaxy to the MLS Cup final in 1996 and eventually ended his MLS career with the Chicago Fire in 1998, the same year in which he participated in the World Cup with Mexico.

In 2000, Luis Hernández, one of El Tri’s most lethal strikers, filled the spot at striker for the LA Galaxy that countryman Carlos Hermosillo—who was far removed from his prime and had a relatively uneventful two seasons in MLS—left open upon his departure. In Hernández’s first match with the club, El Matador helped draw 40,000 fans.

However, all of them quickly realized that, despite their previous successes in Europe or back home in Mexico, MLS wasn’t a walk in the park.

Sánchez, at 37, didn’t impress on the field for Dallas and left after just one season. It didn’t take long for Campos to realize that he couldn’t afford to play for two leagues year-round—he was splitting time between MLS and Mexico—and, in the end, he chose to stick with Mexican clubs until his retirement. And the hype over Hernández, who also played for Mexican club during the MLS offseason, proved short-lived; he returned home in 2002 after two quiet campaigns.

Hernández’s departure marked the beginning of a barren four-year period for MLS, as it concerns Mexicans. Clubs looked to Europe and South America for their talent and their big names.

Then Mexican businessman Jorge Vergara came along.

Like his predecessors on the field, the outspoken owner of Chivas de Guadalajara realized the potential—and profit—inherent in the US Hispanic market. Vergara set out to bridge a bit of a gap that existed between the Mexican public in the US and the MLS and, in August of 2004, Chivas USA became the league’s 11th team.

“We’re convinced that what MLS needs is a Mexican team,” Vergara said in 2003, alluding to the fact that the Hispanic market had remained untapped for a few years, and that Chivas USA would help fill that void.

“Expanding their brand in American soccer will give us the ability to appeal to their fan base and will give us a meaningful team,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber told Mexico’s El Universal in October of 2003.

Realizing that the appeal was even stronger now that, 10 years into its life, MLS had grown in quality, a slew of Mexican players followed. However, once again, few could cut it, as MLS proved a more difficult league than they assumed.

Francisco Palencia (Chivas USA, 2005-06), Ramón Ramírez (Chivas USA, 2005-07), José Manuel Abundis (New England, 2006) and, most famously, Duilio Davino (FC Dallas, 2008) and Luis Ángel Landín (Houston, 2009-10) all had little to no impact upon their move north. The only two players since Campos to have some measure of success were Claudio Suárez, famed Mexico defender and El Tri’s most-capped player, and Cuauhtémoc Blanco, arguably the most popular player Mexico has ever produced.

Second on El Tri’s all-time scoring list, Blanco was deemed old and slow when he arrived in Chicago. But people showed up to see Temo—5,000 fans witnessed his introduction alone. The Fire DP responded with three great seasons and two MLS MVP nominations.

Blanco’s stint in the US not only revived his career with the Mexican National Team, which even led to a 2010 World Cup appearance, but his triumphs also caught the attention of Mexican people and players abroad. Blanco’s success changed how Mexicans perceive MLS. No longer do they see it as a fledgling, weak league. Now it is considered a strong, established league that can test quality players on the field, as well as give them the off-field challenge of helping advance the sport in the US.

“I don’t know [how I will compare to previous Mexicans in MLS]. I hope I can be better,” Márquez said recently. “I’m looking to write my own story and to work on the basis of my ambitions. And I hope to win all the titles I want to win.”

The fact that such high-profile players as Márquez, Castillo, and Bravo, each in or near he prime, have chosen to join MLS is a signal that now, more than ever, Mexicans are opening their arms to MLS and MLS is returning the love right back.