On Thursday, Vancouver Whitecaps FC announced the acquisition of physical 23-year-old Venezuelan striker Anthony Blondell, the leading scorer of the Primera División in 2017.
Not traditionally known as a hotbed of South American soccer, baseball is the national sport in Venezuela. Some of the most well-known people from Blondell’s hometown of Cumaná played for the Colorado Rockies, Detroit Tigers, LA Dodgers, and Seattle Mariners.
However with a determined focus in the past 10 years, Venezuela has begun a new history that is starting to see their athletes become more and more prominent in the soccer world, and MLS scouts have certainly taken notice.
THE TURNING POINT
In 2007, when Blondell would have been 13-years-old, Venezuela hosted the Copa America for the first time – the South American continental championship, equivalent to the UEFA EURO tournament. It was a chance for people in the country to experience high level international soccer, welcoming the likes of Argentina and Brazil.
Hosting the tournament was also seen as an opportunity to reinvest in the sport and chart a path forward for the future. A series of new stadiums were built, and the top tier of the domestic league was expanded from 10 clubs to 18.
But most importantly came a new rule, one that focused on development. The mandate imposed every team in the top division of the pro league to field at least one U-20 player in every league match. For Venezuelan Cup matches, they are also required to play a U-18 player.
Former national team head coach Richard Paez has called the rule “fundamental” to developing the nation’s young talent.
Ten years later, the change appears to finally be creating the desired impact. Among the most notable exports is Salomón Rondón, a big physical striker like Blondell who plays at English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion.
“A fabulous generation of players has emerged – the kind that you don’t see every day," long-time Venezuelan coach Manuel Plasencia told news outlet AFP.
SUCCESS ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE
This past summer Venezuela experienced their greatest ever success on the international stage.
Their U-20 men’s national team qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup for only the second time (the first time was in 2009).
What happened next was quite remarkable – a run all the way to the U-20 World Cup final. In their run they beat Germany, Mexico, Japan, the United States, and Uruguay before they finally fell 1-0 to England.
The man who captained that team was 19-year-old central midfielder Yangel Herrera. He received the Bronze Ball as the third best player in the tournament. That's no small feat in an event that has seen players before him such as Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Sergio Aguero, Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez, and Edinson Cavani, just to name a few recent stars.
“We are not a country with enough football history, but today we are aware of the quality we have,” Herrera said to FutbolMLS in June.
The native of La Guaira began his professional career at Monagas SC – the same club in Venezuela that Blondell is coming from. He spent this past season playing in MLS with New York City FC, on loan from Manchester City, and supplanted legend Andrea Pirlo for a starting role.
It’s a path to soccer success that several of Blondell's other compatriots have also recently taken.
THRIVING IN MLS
The talent pool from Venezuela is one that MLS fans are becoming familiar with.
Atlanta United FC striker Josef Martinez made his presence known in his first MLS season. The 24-year-old scored at a rate of nearly one goal every game – 19 in 20 appearances, to be exact. He began his career at home with Caracas, making 36 appearances before moving to Europe with Swiss clubs Young Boys and Thun, and later playing at Torino in Italy.
21-year-old Venezuelan Jefferson Savarino is still in the early stages of his career. After joining Real Salt Lake partway through 2017, he went on to record six goals and five assists in his debut MLS season. Before his first foray abroad he scored 32 goals during his five years at Zulia, from the ages of 16 to 20.
"The juvenile rule in Venezuela has served a lot for young people to take experience [in professional soccer]," Savarino told Univision.
More Venezuelan players are being welcomed to MLS too. Blondell’s former Monagas teammate Luis “Cariaco” González joined FC Dallas at the last transfer deadline, and there are rumours that New York Red Bulls are looking to acquire 17-year-old Venezuelan Cristian Casseres Jr.
Now comes Blondell to Whitecaps FC, the top scorer of the domestic league this past season who recently made his national team debut on November 13 against Iran.
What happens next in MLS, and what the future holds for Venezuelan soccer, we will all have to watch and see.