Gonzalo Higuain’s move to Inter Miami CF became official on Friday, making the longtime Argentine national team and European club star the latest in a string of impressive names Major League Soccer has lured in the latter stages of their career.
Somehow, though, Higuain is the first MLS player of such a caliber from Argentina.
The South American powerhouse is one of the world’s great producers of talent. Case in point? Some 143 Argentine players have played in MLS plied their trade over the years. That’s the highest number from any single foreign country, ahead of Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and England. Those players include three MVP Winners (Christian Gomez-2006, Guillermo Barros Schelotto-2008, Diego Valeri-2017), and at least three All-Stars in each of the past three seasons.
But in terms of names casual fans might recognize from World Cup or UEFA Champions League glory, their burgeoning fashion line or their pop-star wives or partners? Higuain is the only of those in MLS history that has worn La Albiceleste. All the while, you’d need multiple hands to count the star-level Englishmen or Mexicans to play in the league since 1996.
So what gives?
The exact reason Higuain is charting a course alone among the giants of Argentine soccer may actually be the same one that explains why so many other good — but not superstar — players have found their way to MLS. In human-capital terms, the country’s role for MLS has been as a supplier of high-value talent (like the previously listed MLS MVPs), players who can provide 80% of the on-field value of David Beckham or Kaka at 8% of the cost. Those players might also have European options or aspirations, but often the American lifestyle and stability can be more appealing than cutting through a hyper-competitive club landscape on the other side of the planet from home.
And when Argentine players do make it big in Europe, they lose that high-value return without usually earning name recognition to the casual English speaking fan, the kind of thing that could make a higher-priced signing worth it commercially. Case in point: there are many more excellent Argentines in Europe than Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero. But most play in Italy’s Serie A or on Spanish sides not named Real Madrid or Barcelona, which means a lot less American TV exposure. This is also true of a lot of the Mexican stars who have left Europe for MLS, but compared to the Mexican American community that has flocked to support El Tri stars over the years, the Argentine-American community is small.
Higuain is likely an exception to a rule, not the beginning of a trend. At age 32, he is young enough to have several quality years left. He resonates with casual fans as the second-most-important player on the 2014 Argentina national team that finished second at the World Cup in Brazil. His class is unquestionable, with 280 career club goals between Real Madrid, Napoli, Juvenus, AC Milan and Cheslea.
Yet his market value is one seventh of Messi’s and one third of Aguero’s, according to Transfermarkt. He has more value in Miami than maybe anywhere else in the U.S., in a region with the nation’s largest Argentine-American population (not to mention the most direct flights to Buenos Aires). And MLS even brings the added benefit of being closer to older brother Federico, who is with D.C. United as a player-coach.
Higuain will put Inter Miami CF on the global soccer map, and that’s especially important for a club trying to build a glamorous image reflective of Beckham, the first MLS superstar-turned-club-owner. But he won’t transform the overall relationship of the league’s relationship with Argentine players. That’s OK. It’s pretty fruitful as it is.