With 15 seasons in the books, MLSsoccer.com looks back at the stars, personalities and cult heroes who made Major League Soccer what it is today. We continue our "What Ever Happened To..." series with flamboyant former Colombian national-teamer and MLS original, the iconic Carlos Valderrama.
Where He Was Then
With his precise passing skills, bold playing style and blond afro, Carlos Valderrama brought a World Cup pedigree to MLS in its inaugural season, and became a smash favorite over seven years in the league with Tampa Bay, Miami and Colorado. The Colombian earned the first league MVP award in 1996 and was selected on three occasions to the MLS First XI squad (1996, 1997 and 2000). “El Pibe” still holds the league record for assists in a single season, tallying 20 for Tampa Bay in ‘96.
Where He Is Now
Valderrama’s vast experience and cheery personality landed him a job in the United States as a radio analyst after hanging up his boots. For the last four years, the Colombian has been a commentator for the show Fútbol de Primera, where he offers his unique insight and shares his thoughts at will while splitting time between Miami and his homeland.
Still, “El Pibe” could never walk away too far from the field and, wanting to stay close to the game that made him such an important figure worldwide, he stared his own soccer academy in Colombia.
“[I’m] teaching what I’ve learned during my professional career,” he recently told FutbolMLS.com. “I’m trying to give an opportunity to kids who don’t have many means or many chances to succeed.”
Even though it makes him profoundly happy to teach everything he knows to kids from poor families, he admits that he wishes to someday become a professional coach at the club level, a dream that he started working towards in 2007, when he served as general manager and assistant coach for Colombian side Junior de Barranquilla.
“When I retired from the game, I was mentally preparing myself for it and had an idea of what I wanted to do from that point on,” he said. “I haven’t been chosen [to be the head coach of a professional club], but I’m ready to take on the opportunity when it comes.
“The thing is getting picked. I’ve been taking courses even since I retired. I’ve been completing FIFA seminars and I’ve gone to seminars in Argentina. Unfortunately, the opportunity hasn’t presented itself, but I know it will.”
Valderrama has very fond memories of his time in MLS with Tampa Bay – where he won the Supporters’ Shield in ’96 – as well as his two seasons in Colorado and a lone one with Miami.
“What we wanted was for soccer to finally catch on in this country,” he said. “It’s happening, and it continues to grow. There are teams with their own stadiums, and that clearly shows that we achieved what we wanted, which was introducing soccer to the US market through MLS. In the beginning it’s always hard, but we made it. The league is stable and it’s going on the right direction.”
After his accomplishments, the door stayed wide open for more Colombian talent. Big names like Adolfo “El Tren” Valencia, Óscar Pareja and Diego Serna joined the league on Valderrama’s heels. More recently, stars such as Juan Pablo Angel, David Ferreira and Fredy Montero have been joined by veteran goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón and defender Carlos Valdés.
“[I’m] happy because they are representing us very well,” Valderrama said of his countrymen. “[Ferreira] is a guy that has it all and he’s disciplined. Juan Pablo came and became the top goalscorer for his team.
"Fredy arrived and is still in his team. Now Faryd Mondragón and Carlos Valdés are here and they are players with a great name in Colombian soccer.”
For Valderrama, as well as for other Colombian players, the possibility to play in MLS presents a unique opportunity to be in a place where one can enjoy a great quality of life. The poor economic environment of Colombian soccer has forced talented players to leave the domestic league and play internationally. MLS is among the top destinations for such players.
“This is a big country where soccer has become more popular,” Valderrama said. “One knows that one can bring his family here and live without any problems. The teams are very organized and in Colombia people see this as a very important opportunity. We learn a new language, we adapt to a new culture, and that is attractive to us because it helps us grow not only as soccer players, but as human beings.”
What They Said
When I was a senior in college, I had a poster of him in my dorm room and then a few months later, I was playing alongside him. It was pretty surreal. He was unbelievable as far as keeping the ball; he hardly ever lost it. His vision and his passing were perfect – he saw the game before anybody else. I feel very fortunate I had the opportunity to play with him.
– Steve Ralston, teammate of Valderrama’s during the 1996 and ‘97 seasons at Tampa Bay