Major League Soccer's recruiting focus has shifted dramatically towards South America ahead of the 2008 season. No team epitomizes that groundbreaking change more than D.C. United.
The 2007 Supporters' Shield winners adopted a strong Latin flavor in the offseason, signing three players from Argentina, one from Colombia and another from Peru to add to their Brazilian duo of Luciano Emilio and Fred.
The biggest addition was designated player and World Cup veteran Marcelo Gallardo, but it is strongly hoped that his fellow countrymen Franco Neill and Gonzalo Peralta also can make a strong impact. Peruvian goalkeeper Jose Carvallo and Colombian defender Gonzalo Martinez add to the new cosmopolitan edge in Tom Soehn's team.
A major part of the new preference for South American players is cost-related. High-quality, experienced performers are available at reasonable prices, especially compared to Europe where high wages and surging currencies conspire to make MLS a financially unattractive proposition for many.
16-7-7 (55 points), first in Eastern Conference, first overall. Lost to Chicago in Eastern Conference semifinals.
KEY MAN: Marcelo Gallardo. The veteran of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups was the pick of the club's international signings and brings a wealth of top-level experience with him. He can be temperamental, but his playmaking skills have been outstanding throughout his career. If he advances from deep positions, then MLS defenders will have nightmares trying to blunt his effectiveness.
NEWCOMER: Dan Stratford. A former Fulham reserve, the English midfielder's all-action style could be well suited to MLS. The West Virginia graduate is expected to push for an increased role over the course of the season.
OUTLOOK: All United wants is to win it all. Last season's playoff defeat to Chicago was heartbreaking and an inappropriate reward for a superb campaign. All eyes will be on the South American newcomers, but the squad and organization is well-established enough to avoid any early disruption. It is hard to see United failing to challenge for a top spot in the regular season. Then it is all down to those unpredictable playoffs.
MLS deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis predicted an influx of Latin talent many months ago, but no team has thrown themselves into that market as wholeheartedly as United.
The club's performance this year will be seen as an acid test for whether a large number of South American players can be successfully merged into an MLS team.
United defender Bryan Namoff, who has been with the team since 2001, believes the newcomers will have a positive effect and may help the club stride further into the playoffs than its frustrating first-round exit to Chicago last season.
"D.C. United has not won a championship since 2004, which is a long time by our standards," Namoff said. "We have got a lot of international players in who have the experience of playing at a higher level and their approach is just geared around being winners. That is all that matters to them, and they also bring a lot of leadership.
"The nature of this business is that times change and you have to move with that. The important thing is that the core unit and principles of the team stay the same.
"Last year was extremely frustrating. Having two years of winning the Supporters' Shield and then losing in the playoffs by shooting ourselves in the foot was devastating. That is why a lot of the guys are so excited by this season and what it has to offer."
The spate of new players will have a particular effect on the backline, where Namoff will suddenly be surrounded by a Spanish-speaking core of defensive colleagues. However, he is adamant that the ability of the South Americans will more than compensate for any early communication problems.
"When you bring in that many new faces, it takes a bit of time," Namoff said. "There are so many different backgrounds, but everyone has been great and this is a very accepting environment.
"At the back we have got a bit of Spanglish going on and it's going OK so far. Over time, we will get to know each other's games and the communication will pick up."