Scouting overlooked markets growing increasingly important in booming MLS
Before Toni Delamea joined the New England Revolution, he didn't know much about Major League Soccer. The 6-foot center-back grew up in Celje, Slovenia, and played for Interblock and then Olimpija Ljubljana in the Slovenian PrvaLiga. The American domestic league was barely on his radar.
"I knew a little because my favorite player, David Beckham, played there," he told ESPN FC over the phone. "But honestly, not too much."
But when he learned that the Revolution were interested in signing him, he started looking into MLS and liked what he saw. Delamea, 26, who has played for the Slovenia national team at every youth level and made his debut for the first team last November, signed with the Revs in January.
This season, he has started every game, played every minute and scored his first goal in a 2-1 defeat against the Chicago Fire on June 17. Delamea fits right in, even if some of his friends, family and former teammates back home aren't entirely sure why he made the decision he did.
"Everyone was curious about why I choose this league, why I go so far away," he said. "But I try to tell them that this league is also good, the level of football is very high and everything is going up, up. I try to tell them that one day it might be good for them, too."
League executives should hope more players like Delamea consider a move to MLS. Because if the domestic league is going to continue to improve in the near future -- especially as it expands at a rapid rate -- MLS needs to continue attracting players like Delamea, skilled men in their prime who come from overlooked countries and national teams. Delamea might not be a sexy name, but having him in MLS benefits the team he's on and the reputation of the league internationally.
In recent years, the number of non-American, non-Canadian CONCACAF players -- along with players from South America, especially Colombia -- has grown as the league becomes more of a destination. Those countries and regions represent an excellent source of talent. But they aren't going to be enough.
To grow further, MLS teams should look to players like Delamea from smaller, overlooked European countries. Some are already here. Slovakia's Albert Rusnak (Real Salt Lake), Finland's Jukka Raitala (Columbus Crew SC) and Rasmus Schuller (Minnesota United), and Bosnia and Herzegovina's Haris Medunjanin (Philadelphia Union) were all called up to their respective national teams in the last window.
As these players find success, they will help spread the MLS gospel across the globe. The fact is, MLS is a better league than it gets credit for in Europe, both in terms of quality of play and organizational structure. It's under the radar (the old "soccer in America" bias), but it doesn't have to be. This new generation of players came in part because their countrymen had success in the past.
"I have my friend and teammate from the national team, Asmir Begovic," Medunjanin, who had stints with AZ and Maccabi Tel Aviv, among others, said of the former Chelsea and Stoke goalkeeper, who has traveled to the U.S. for preseason tours and is a follower of MLS. "He was telling me always good things about the league."
When Raitala, formerly of Hoffenheim and other squads, learned that Columbus was interested in potentially signing him, he called a few of his national-team colleagues who had spent time in MLS. "These guys were talking very positive about the league," he said. "The competition was very professional. It wasn't so difficult to come here."
Getting high-quality players benefits the league, of course, but the players can also benefit as well.
"I have learned. The way we play and the way Gregg [Berhalter] is coaching us and me, I think I'm taking some steps forward tactically. Doing things a little differently. It's been refreshing, definitely," the 28-year-old Raitala said.
"We play very offensive, the full-backs. I like it that way. Sometimes the full-backs get inside the pockets and you play the position of the winger. You change positions. That way to play is coming. You look at Europe, Bayern Munich for example, and they also play like that. The full-backs are getting inside and the wingers stay wide. It doesn't matter which player stays in which position."
If there's one downside to MLS, it's the travel. Not just the domestic travel, which is intense and unrelenting, but the travel abroad to national team games.
The three players who spoke for this story had varying experiences. Raitala said it wasn't too difficult, just an eight- or nine-hour flight from Chicago to Helsinki. Medunjanin called the travel "crazy," but thought he'd get used to it after some time. While Delamea didn't complain, he did spend an entire day getting from his home near Gillette Stadium back to Slovenia and spends anywhere from 14 to 20 hours on a flight.
Even so, the center-back doesn't regret his decision to move to America.
"When I came here, everything was new to me: the culture, the league, the language. But when I look back, I think I didn't make a mistake," he said. "The league is very good. Good players, good atmosphere, huge level of professionalism. I really enjoy it.
"I hope I won't be the only one from Slovenia one day."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.