Perhaps the worries began when Jorge Villafana, one of the true feel-good stories of the recent MLS playoffs, made the move. The fears among American soccer fans about MLS player flight to Liga MX surely reached a fever pitch when, in a matter of days, Omar Gonzalez, Luis Gil and Juninho all secured deals in Mexico, and a fresh rumor emerged linking reigning Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin to interest from Liga MX champions Tigres.
It probably felt like a tidal wave of talent leaving MLS, especially since Liga MX is the only league with an open transfer window this month, and there were no other moves going on to share the headlines. Whatever the reason, there was definitely a sense of unease from MLS fans fearing that the league's cupboards were being raided by the very league MLS is supposed to be trying to surpass in the immediate future.
This sounds counterintuitive, but the fact that so many players are making moves to Mexico actually is a direct sign of Major League Soccer's growth, and the increased level of respect Mexican clubs have for their neighbors to the north. This isn't as simple as a case of Mexican clubs taking fliers on free players — it's also now a growing trend of Mexican teams investing real money into buying MLS talent.
To fully appreciate this latest step in the evolution of MLS, you must first be willing to accept that, for all of the league's growth in recent years, it is still playing second fiddle to Liga MX — not only with player salaries, but also in terms of overall financial strength, and even exposure and interest on American soil. Television ratings for Liga MX matches in the U.S. are better than MLS ratings. Mexican teams generate considerably more revenue than their MLS counterparts, and that allows Liga MX teams to build deeper squads and buy more talent.
MLS is closing the gap, in terms of growing interest in the league, domestically and internationally, as well as in terms of quality. The league is signing more big names than ever before and league owners have committed to spending more to build stronger teams, even though revenue still isn't where it needs to be for the league to really threaten to close the gap on the world's top leagues.
MLS' growth has led to a better product on the field, and therefore more interest in, and respect for, its players. Mexican clubs value MLS players now more than ever. While it might seem to some that Liga MX clubs snatching up MLS players is a new trend, the reality is Mexican teams have been increasingly looking at MLS for value in recent years.
Former Real Salt Lake defender Carlos Salcedo and ex-Vancouver Whitecaps striker (and MLS Golden Boot winner) Camilo Sanvezzo are just some of the MLS players who made the move to Mexico in recent years. Sanvezzo's controversial move to Queretaro has been marred by the forward's knee injuries, but when healthy he has proved his ability to play and score in Mexico.
Salcedo's story is an even more impressive one for MLS. Salcedo was a young defender for RSL who hadn't quite broken through as a lockdown starter, and Chivas Guadalajara swooped in and bought him, making his dream of a move to Liga MX a reality. Salcedo responded with a breakout year for Chivas, one that also saw him earn his first Mexican national team caps and status as one of the bright young talents in El Tri's player pool. It has also led to reports that Salcedo is gearing up for a transfer to a top European league in the near future.
Salcedo's success, and its effect on how Liga MX teams value MLS talent, shouldn't be understated. Here was another player who developed in MLS, and who went to Mexico and thrived. His success had to make it somewhat easier for teams such as Santos Laguna to believe in a player like Villafana, and Queretaro to sign Luis Gil, Salcedo's former RSL teammate.
Mexican clubs have also surely taken notice at the cases of Liga MX alumni who tried their hand in MLS and earned mixed results, only to return to Mexico and thrive. Players like Rafa Marquez and Omar Bravo were far from being impact players in MLS, but both enjoyed successful returns to Liga MX after their MLS stints.
Liga MX teams understand now that there is talent in MLS, and reasonably priced talent at that. They are finding good values, and how those players do in Mexico will continue to help determine just how MLS players are seen on the international market.
You can't really blame MLS players for wanting to make the move to Mexico, particularly Mexican-Americans who can switch to Liga MX rosters without taking up international roster slots. Players know that Mexican clubs pay significantly more than their MLS counterparts, and the style of play in Mexico can sometimes lead to more success than in MLS. Players like Luis Gil and Luis Silva, who have enjoyed modest success in MLS but never quite lived up to expectations, are now heading to a league where they will be hoping their technical qualities are better showcased.
If there is a patron saint for MLS players hoping for success and riches in Mexico, it is Herculez Gomez. The former U.S. national team forward left MLS for Mexico after the 2009 season and revived his career in Liga MX, earning a series of well-paid moves and scoring plenty of goals, enough to earn himself a place at the 2010 World Cup and several years of service for the national team. In the process, Gomez made significantly more money in six years in Liga MX than most MLS veterans can hope to make in an entire MLS career.
Gomez returned to MLS last summer, and found a league much healthier than the one he left in 2009. He also helped establish a pathway for MLS players to try and take a similar path to success south of the border.
An exodus of talent from MLS to Mexico shouldn't be seen as a bad thing, but it does put more pressure on MLS teams to continue developing players through its academies, and finding talent globally to keep roster strength improving. League owners recently committed another round of investment — more than $35 million worth — to try and bolster rosters, and it will be up to MLS teams to spend that money wisely to infuse more talent into a league also preparing for another round of expansion.Leagues all around the world deal with losing players to bigger leagues, and higher-paying leagues. The true test of a league's health is its ability to steadily produce talent that not only generates transfer revenue, but that in turn also succeeds in other leagues. Losing players like Gonzalez, Juninho and Villafana is going to sting for fans who hate seeing their teams part ways with players, and hate seeing MLS lose talent to a rival league. But the fact remains it is a sign of the league's improving health, not a sign of its looming demise.