Aiding overseas stars like Nicolas Lodeiro settle in MLS is science and art
It's a scenario that has played out countless times the world over. A foreign player arrives in a new league, underperforms and moves on to somewhere else. On his way out, some version of "He never settled" is offered up as the reason.
The above makes it sound as though success and failure is down to luck, factors beyond a team's control or that the player himself was to blame. While that can be the case, discussions with several MLS organizations reveal that there is both art and science to how teams recruit foreign players and then how they help those performers adapt once they arrive.
Arguably the acquisition of the 2016 season has been Seattle Sounders midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, with his creativity sparking a late season revival that recently saw the team move into the playoff positions for the first time all season. But the targeting of Lodeiro went well beyond his ability on the field. He fit a profile designed to increase the odds of success for both club and player.
"Ideally, when you sign a guy, you want someone who speaks English," said Seattle GM Garth Lagerwey. "You also want someone who has played outside their home country. Both of those things tend to predict an ability to adapt to a culture other than your home culture. They'll have some aptitude for being able to take on a new apartment, new car, new country, new language, that kind of thing.
"Depending on what you pay, sometimes you can get it, sometimes you can't. You try to get hard-working personalities, personalities that will help themselves. You have to be willing to leave your house, investigate and make friends. Those are things that sound silly, but are really important in terms of happiness and mental health, things that in my opinion are just as important to how you adjust on the field."
Lodeiro fit all of those criteria. Lagerwey added that he tends to go for players with families. In his experience, players who are single tend to have Europe on their minds, which is less of an issue for married players.
He said, "It's the guys with families who are thinking about 'Do I want the American dream? Do I want a better life for my family? Do I want to think about a career beyond just playing for the next couple of years?'"
For Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko, there are eight areas the team looks at when recruiting players, be they foreign or domestic. They amount to a more granular level of the technical, tactical, physical and psychological boxes used to rate players. Those included talking with players about what Bezbatchenko calls "the life side of things." If a player has played outside his home country, where did he play? Did he spend multiple years there or did he bail after six months? And perhaps more critically, what kind of support network does the player have around him?
"It's like an interview for any job," Bezbatchenko said. "What is your takeaway from the interview? Does he have the mental steel and the determination to not just get over the move and the transition, but when things are hard? When he is not in the starting lineup and not playing regularly, does he have the character to fight through even if he doesn't have the support network, the family around him that he has in his home country? That is probably one of the most important things."
Hard conversations must also be had about the peculiarities of MLS, especially as it relates to playing on artificial turf and dealing with travel, though the realities sometimes don't sink in until after the player arrives.
For Bezbatchenko, the thoroughness of the process is borne of experience. He hit a home run with reigning MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco but also swung and missed with Jermain Defoe, who lasted just a single season in Toronto. Yet even that latter experience has value. TFC now has a finer eye of what to look for and what to avoid.
"One of the lessons from the Defoe experience is that it can't be just an adventure for the player," said Bezbatchenko. "It can't be that he just wants to come over here because it's something new and something different than he did before. The player needs to come over here because he wants to help soccer grow in North America, and he wants to win a championship with the team. He has a burning desire deep within to accomplish that feat."
The second lesson is that if unexpected obstacles are encountered, the organization needs to be nimble in dealing with those situations, even if it means cutting its losses. In Defoe's case, the presence of his mother, Sandra St. Helen, proved to be a huge distraction: Reports indicated that she tried to engineer prospective moves back to England without the knowledge of the club, all while he was injured. Defoe eventually signed with Sunderland in the deal that brought Jozy Altidore to Toronto.
So would Bezbatchenko bring over extended family again if a prospective player asked for it?
"I wouldn't say no. I think every player is different, but I think we would have to think twice and decide if that was something that we want from another player," he said. "Will it add and help his support network or will it actually hinder his ability to adapt? In Jermain's case, it may have hindered him in the long term when he was going through a period where he was injured."
Once the player is signed, then the real work of helping him adapt begins. There is an apartment to hunt for, a car to be obtained, bank accounts to be opened, and cellphones to be acquired. In the U.S., the player needs to be set up with the Social Security system, while players with Canadian teams need to be enrolled in the country's nationalized healthcare system. If the player doesn't speak English, there are classes to sign up for. Needs vary among players of different ages and abilities.
Such tasks were also once considered to be the purview of agents or the player himself, but that has changed over the years.
"I think as everything becomes more professionalized and as leagues grow, teams realize that players are their biggest asset," said Richard Motzkin, an agent and executive vice president with Wasserman Media Group. "You should take care of your most important assets and in that vein, setting up systems to help facilitate those transitions are important."
MLS teams now see it as a necessity to provide that level of support, and it can be a difference-maker when wooing players from abroad. Word gets around about which MLS clubs do more to help players and which ones do the bare minimum, though just about every team has a soccer operations or team administrator who helps the player through the settling-in process.
"There is kind of a standard of care you could say," said FC Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo. "The ones that do come with families, we tried to provide them with schools, provide them with help and put the stress on someone else and not the players so they can play."
The well-being of spouses is of particular concern. Even if the player adjusts, difficulties can ensue if the wife or girlfriend does not.
"We've had situations where a player has come over and with all the traveling that we do, the wife might be at home and doesn't speak the language," said New England Revolution GM Mike Burns. "She has a hard time adjusting, the player comes home and the wife isn't happy. That impacts things."
Toronto FC midfielder Benoit Cheyrou is one example where things were done right. The Frenchman arrived in Canada prior to the 2015 season with his wife and two children and with the help of TFC, he was able to find a French school in the Toronto area where the curriculum matched that of schools back in France. Add in the help in terms of living arrangements and transportation, and you have a level of support that Cheyrou says is better than what he witnessed back in France. The help he received has been critical to the settling-in process, and the ease that it created for him is incalculable.
"I think that for me, to perform on the pitch you need to feel good in your head, feel comfortable," he said. "You spend a lot of time with the team at the training facilities, at practice, and then on the road with the team at the hotel and in the stadium and the airport. But you spend more time with your family, and if your family isn't comfortable, you can't perform as well as you want on the pitch because mentally you aren't free, you know? So for me, it's a big part of success, to feel good in your head, and your family has to feel good as well because that is your main concern."
Cheyrou's sentiments are echoed by FC Dallas midfielder Mauro Rosales. Prior to spending his first MLS season with the Seattle Sounders back in 2011, Rosales had been on the books at Ajax. Rosales said the level of off-field support in MLS has been comparable to Ajax and he stressed how important that is with regard to aiding on-field performance.
"It's very important. [Adapting] is stressful," he said. "You want to just focus on soccer but trying to get a house is not easy, trying to get everything set up in your house; internet, cable, lights, everything you need in a house. The problem is if you move a lot like I did, you have to do it a few times and every time you have to get through the same stuff all the time. It gets stressful but it's okay."
Every team has its unique set of difficulties. San Jose Earthquakes president Dave Kaval pointed out that the white-hot real estate market in the San Francisco Bay Area has made it difficult to find housing options for players of all nationalities. Clavijo added that concepts such as writing a check or direct deposit are brand new to some younger players, so some initial hand-holding is required. As for mistakes, he's made a few.
"One mistake we made at the beginning was housing; where, how far away, we didn't follow up on things," Clavijo said. "You have to follow up because they are still young, and still athletes in a totally different country and we have to give them more care in the beginning than we did."
On the field, travel is the single biggest adjustment for players and no amount of warning can prepare them for the impact it has on their bodies and their ability to recover from practices and games.
"The players are blown away by the amount of travel that we do in this league," said Burns. "If we're talking to a player from South America and Europe, we say, 'Listen, there's a situation where we could have a Saturday game at home, and then we're flying San Jose for a Wednesday game, and then New York for a Sunday game.' You can say that all you want, but until they're actually on the plane and then playing, you have to experience it firsthand no matter how many times we tell them."
But in talking to teams and players, language remains the linchpin of a player's future success, though it doesn't necessarily need to be English. Locker rooms (such as the one at FC Dallas) are in many ways bilingual, and the sooner that trait is made clear to a new arrival, the faster they reach a level of comfort.
"I think [the language is] the most important thing," said Rosales, who learned English and Dutch when he played with Ajax. "Not just because you need it to survive, but to communicate with your teammates in the game, with the referees, with the coaches, everyone that you want to explain about your situation or what you think about the soccer, what you think about you playing, everything.
"You need it for everything, and sometimes the people making a translation can't be as effective as you just saying what you think. Sometimes it's difficult to be behind a translator. You want to be you, the one to talk, to say the things that you want."
And if the manager (in this case, Oscar Pareja) speaks the player's language, so much the better. Clavijo mentioned how both Mauro Diaz and Carlos Gruezo were able to settle quickly because they could communicate easily with Pareja.
"I think right from the beginning you start on the right foot and you make a player feel comfortable," said Clavijo. "Then of course you need to follow up from the coaches and the staff or myself and my staff to make sure little by little, they settle. We have learned over time what works, and how much some players might need more help than others."
Not every MLS team is as far along in the process as Seattle, Toronto and Dallas are. Burns admitted that New England "are not exactly where we need to be as an organization and as a league" in terms of dedicated resources to help a player adapt, though the Revs do have two staff members to assist in that process. There is always more that could be done and in some cases, budgets are tight. A team may decide to bulk up scouting or sport science at the expense of team operations.
"As a big club, we have a lot of resources to throw at this," Lagerwey said. "We can do this on a different scale than we could than when I was at Real Salt Lake."
It can't be forgotten that the player himself has a huge impact on the rapidity with which he adapts. Professionalism is key. Lagerwey noted that Lodeiro had already watched Seattle's previous 10 games when he arrived in July. Lodeiro also brought his family to the U.S. when he played for Uruguay earlier this year at the Copa America Centenario, the better to get a taste of life in North America. Both player and club did their homework, and now they're enjoying the payoff.
"I think it's really exciting that guys like Lodeiro are choosing to come to MLS, it's a wonderful thing," said Lagerwey. "I think Giovinco was really the first domino to fall, but if MLS is able to recruit players of that caliber, that's really, really positive for how we move forward as a league."
If MLS organizations can do more to help players adapt, then more Lodeiros and Giovincos and even solid pros like Cheyrou will follow. And perhaps, we'll hear a bit less about how a player didn't settle.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.