By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (July 9, 2012) US Soccer Players — Players from all over the world have called Major League Soccer home. MLS has been, and continues to be, a reflection of America. Hailing from South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, there have been many players – both good, bad and somewhere in between – who have signed with teams since the League’s inception in 1996. Italy is a country that has produced a disproportionate amount of soccer talent over the years, but very few of those players have migrated to MLS over the past 17 seasons.
With that in mind, it is interesting when a team like the Montreal Impact signs four Italians in a single season. The latest signing came this past Thursday when the team confirmed it had acquired AC Milan defender Alessandro Nesta. The 36-year-old is the latest Italian player to enter the League, but more on that later. Overall, Italian players have been reluctant to play in the United States.
“They (my teammates) will teach me about this new League and how to handle games in what is a new place for me,” Nesta told reporters Friday at a news conference. “The rest will work itself out.”
It hasn’t always worked itself out. The few who made the journey in 1996 were midfielder Roberto Donadoni and defender Nicola Caricola, both settling in New York to play with the MetroStars. Both are perfect examples of why Italians have been a mixed bag, but have mostly been a bad investment. The argument over the value of Italian players and what they can contribute to MLS is again at the forefront given the Impact’s recent moves.
Donadoni, a midfielder with AC Milan at the time, signed with the MetroStars much in the same way most foreigners came to MLS in the early years. Big names were supposed to attract fans that had spent years watching games on TV – and he was by far one of the best players that season. On the other hand, Caricola, a journeyman defender famous for a four-year stint with Juventus in the 1980s, was a bust. He scored an own goal past Tony Meola in the team’s first home game against New England with only seconds left on the clock. Some say the franchise has never recovered. The goal has become known as the “Curse of Caricola.”
Donadoni’s success led to a return to AC Milan after the 1997 MLS season. Donadoni never delivered MLS Cup glory to the MetroStars, but did help the Italian giants win a league title, his sixth, before ending his career in Saudi Arabia. Caricola, meanwhile, retired after the ’96 season. Since then, only a handful of Italian stars have played in this country, choosing instead to stay within their national borders and finish their careers with lesser-known teams. Roberto Baggio, for instance, ended his career with Brescia, not in MLS.
Excluding Nesta, there have been only eight Italians in MLS since 1996. Aside from Donadoni and Caricola, those early years featured goalkeeper Walter Zenga (New England) and Giuseppe Galderisi (New England/Tampa Bay). Not until the Impact entered the League this year has there been a renaissance of Italians entering the League. The Impact has signed almost as many Italian players as had previously played in the entire history of MLS. The Impact currently features four Italians – Nesta, Bernardo Corradi, Marco Di Vaio and Matteo Ferrari – while the Chicago Fire has goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi on the bench.
There has been no shortage of transfer window rumors concerning Italian players and MLS. Former Juventus midfielder Alessandro Del Piero had been linked to the New York Red Bulls since 2007. Former AC Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta was also said to be interested in the MetroStars a decade ago, but ultimately declined an offer. The latest summer transfer window rumor had linked Nesta to the Red Bulls. Once the club traded for Chivas USA defender Heath Pearce, the rumor died. Last week, Nesta signed with Montreal in what had been one of the biggest open secrets of the summer.
In May, Montreal announced it had signed Di Vaio as its first Designated Player. A talented striker, Di Vaio is like many Italians who have played in MLS. He’s in the twilight of his career, turning 36 on July 15th and is coming off a long Serie A season with Bologna. In his MLS debut, Di Vaio was unfit and looked sluggish. He had only practiced with the Impact a handful of times after spending two weeks on vacation in Florida with his family. His lousy debut, in a 3-0 loss to Toronto FC on June 27th, was not a good start.
Di Vaio has said he wanted to play in MLS because he was hungry for “a new challenge.” Montreal is certainly that, an expansion club trying to build a fan base for regular league games while proving they can draw crowds for big events.
The arrival of so many Italians in Montreal – and Serie A alums like Colombian defender Nelson Rivas and Brazilian midfielder Felipe Martins – is in part a product of the team’s management group. Club chairman Joey Saputo has Italian roots and sporting director Nick De Santis is fluent in Italian. He also played a season with Termoli in Italy’s fourth division.
The Impact opened a pipeline for Italian players during the offseason when it scouted several players during a trip to northern Italy. It was during that trip that the Impact approached Ferrari while he was training with third-division side Monza. The results have been mixed. Ferrari and Corradi are both injured (Corradi is done for the season) and have contributed very little this season. With the exception of Donadoni and Zenga, many Italians who have come to North America have treated it like a retirement league. Di Vaio said that isn’t the case.
“I want to deliver for the fans,” he told reporters at his first news conference. “I want to score goals. This is what I am here for.”
Whether he, Nesta, Corradi and Ferrari will be able to succeed in MLS remains to be seen. No Italian player has ever won an MLS Cup. Montreal has made history by signing so many Italians. If history is any guide, Montreal’s experiment could turn into one big failure.
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