- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

While last year will be remembered for the arrival of David Beckham, the 2008 MLS season is the season of the South American player.

MLS teams signed a total of 24 players from Latin America in the offseason.

“That’s an incredible statement about the change in our player pool,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “Great quality guys that represent an audience that cares about us.”

D.C. United is one of the leaders in acquiring Latin American players, recruiting five South American players in recent months to bring its South American contingent to eight.

“Argentine and Brazilian players have been a focus of ours,” deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis said. “They have terrific skill that enliven a game and makes players around them better.”

The Latin American countries with the most players in MLS are Argentina with 18 followed by Brazil with 10.

United jump-started the Argentine influx in 2004, when it signed midfielder Christian Gomez, a relatively unknown player who was the league MVP in 2006.

Then Guillermo Barros Schelotto — one of Argentina’s famous domestic players — went to the Columbus Crew last season, followed this season by Marcelo Gallardo to United and Claudio Lopez to the Kansas City Wizards.

Defender Gonzalo Peralta and forward Franco Niell of United are also from Argentine, and Real Salt Lake has four players from the country, which has won two World Cups and is ranked No. 1 in the world.

However, Gallardo and Lopez are a different than most players. Between them, they have played more than 100 games for Argentine national team and are big names in their country.

But the two will face each other when United plays at the Kansas City Wizards today for the season-opener at CommunityAmerica Park, a 10,000-seat baseball park.

“Both players are very established in Argentina, both come to a new league and both want to show well in their colors,” United general manager Dave Kasper said.

Gallardo, a talented playmaker, is nicknamed “El Muneco” (the doll) because of his small frame, while Lopez — an opportunistic forward — is known as “El Piojo” (the flea).

“Marcelo has no pressure on out-performing Claudio [Lopez],” United coach Tom Soehn said. “His responsibility is for his team.”

Lopez, 33, played 58 games for the Argentine national team and scored 10 goals, while Gallardo wore the national team jersey 44 times and scored 14 goals. Both players made appearances at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.

“We are both in a new country, and it will be nice to see him back on the field,” said Gallardo, who remembers Lopez from their days with the national team but has not seen him in recent years.

Before joining the Wizards, Lopez was back in Argentina after stints in Mexico (Club America), Italy (Lazio) and Spain (Valencia). Gallardo’s last team was French club Paris St-Germain.

Both players played in the famous game against England at the 1998 World Cup, which Argentina won in a shootout. Beckham was sent off in the game, and Gallardo converted one of the penalty kicks.

Estimated to earn $1.3 million a year, Gallardo is the team’s most expensive signing, and plenty will be riding on his skills this season.

“If we get the ball to him, he will set things up,” United defender Marc Burch.

Said United defender Bryan Namoff: “He gives us a special outlet when we need it. He’s a special player that’s played at every level possible all the way to the World Cup.”

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