Every time a World Cup rolls around, it is interesting to see how much MLS is represented on the world’s biggest stage. In doing so, it’s no surprise to see that the CONCACAF nations, even with the United States men’s national team not competing in Russia, will once again make up the majority of MLS player representation at the World Cup beginning later this month.
This part is typical. What is rare, however, is seeing MLS players from CONMEBOL nations in the 32-team tournament.
Dating to 1998, just four MLS players have ever been part of a final 23-man CONMEBOL team’s roster. It started with NY/NJ MetroStars midfielder Marcelo Vega (Chile) and Miami Fusion midfielder Carlos Valderrama (Colombia) at France ’98 and didn’t happen again until Brazil 2014, when Chivas USA forward Oswaldo Minda and Toronto FC goalkeeper Julio Cesar played for Ecuador and Brazil, respectively.
That brings us to Russia 2018, where for the first time a CONMEBOL team will boast two MLS players in its squad, as Peru boss Ricardo Gareca has announced that Orlando City midfielder Yoshimar Yotun and Portland Timbers midfielder Andy Polo will be making the trip to Russia.
MLS is a league that has enjoyed a heavy influx of South American players of late, with 30 joining the league over the winter, bringing the total to 79 at season’s start. In that respect, there is a feeling that the World Cup calls for Yotun and Polo are the first major milestone for the league in this era, one that’s heavily influenced by South American talent. Most important for the league, though, is that these two players stand to play big roles in Russia.
Yotun’s value to Peru is well known. Deployed in a central role by Gareca, Yotun is a midfield anchor and produced a number of brilliant performances in the 18-round, heavyweight fight that is CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. The peak was Peru’s 0-0 draw vs. Argentina last October in Buenos Aires, when he helped stifle Lionel Messi and the Albiceleste attack.
Yotun brings the same work rate to Orlando’s midfield while adding a bit more in attack for head coach Jason Kreis — especially from the penalty spot, where he is a cool two-for-two this season. Yotun arrived in Orlando only last season and fit into Kreis’ system like a glove, adjusting to the league “quickly, if not quicker than any person I’ve ever coached,” Kreis noted following April’s 3-2 win over San Jose.
It’s the type of experience that could lay the groundwork for more players from Peru’s golden generation to head to MLS.
“Being here in MLS has been the best decision I have made,” Yotun said via a club interview. “The league is very good and very intense, you run a lot, you play a lot, the intensity has risen. Orlando has helped me greatly.”
Unlike the 20 starts Yotun has accumulated in Orlando over the past two seasons, Polo has just six starts in Portland, but it’s no coincidence that the Timbers’ uptick in results this spring coincided with Polo’s return to the lineup, as Portland has won the past four games in which he has started.
Polo also has the luxury of playing the same position for both club and country — the left side of midfield — and that is bearing fruit for the Timbers. Portland fans are just now starting to see what Polo can bring to the table, the most notable examples being the 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders on May 13, then his finest outing of the season six days later in a 2-1 victory over Los Angeles FC, in which the Morelia loanee tirelessly outdueled his LAFC players counterparts.
Peru fans saw the same bite in seven World Cup qualifiers and in Peru’s memorable 1-0 win over Brazil in the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
While he has yet to show his offensive punch in Portland, the 23-year-old Polo is a reliable scorer in a Peru shirt, having scored in official matches at the Under-15, U17 and U20 levels. With a goal in the World Cup, he could become the first Peru player to score in all four categories.
While it might not register as much as a Zlatan Ibrahimovic signing, there is a long-term significance in the Peru calls for Yotun and Polo, with the rest of CONMEBOL realizing that a path to a World Cup dream can be fulfilled in MLS.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .