Carlos ‘El Pibe’ Valderrama gave the last five years of his playing days to a grateful United States. He brought his brand of attractive football to three different clubs in the fledgling Major League Soccer, and summarily won the hearts of supporters in Tampa Bay, Miami and Colorado with his trademark brand of midfield magic and a prolific penchant for conjuring goals.
In MLS’ first season (1996), the Powers That Be were keen to sign some well-known, foreign stars in an attempt to stir the souls of supporters still buzzing from USA 94. Many of the acquisitions proved fruitless, even laughable, but Valderrama’s languid creativity had the new football nation captivated from the start.
MLS MVP with the Mutiny
El Pibe began his stateside campaign with the now-defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny in 1996. And the warm, balmy weather and sun-drenched splendour of South Florida seemed to strike an immediate chord in the Colombian wizard’s heart. At once, the crowds warmed to the golden-locked Colombian and his clever machinations in the middle of the park.
In MLS’ inaugural season, Valderrama earned League “Most Valuable Player” honours and the respect and recognition of a nation still rather reluctant to accept the world’s football. In his first year he set up an astonishing 17 goals, and even managed to score an unlikely four himself.
The following season (1997), El Pibe was voted MVP of the mid-season MLS All-Star game after scoring an uncharacteristic stunner and laying claim to two assists in the East's 5-4 win. He was a finalist for League Most Valuable Player again and only one of three players named in the League’s First XI in both of MLS’ first two seasons.
Mutiny president and general manager Nick Sakiewicz was one of Valderrama’s most ardent admirers. “…Carlos can do more with his feet than most people can do with their hands,” he commented following the midfielder’s second season in MLS.
In two seasons with the Mutiny, Valderrama twice led the club to the Eastern conference finals.
Miami Rhapsody and a Rapid move to Colorado
After two successful seasons in Tampa Bay, Valderrama made a move to the newly formed Miami Fusion to help reinforce football fever in South Florida. His performances for MLS’ second club in the state were predictably brilliant.
Leading the inexperienced expansion club to the playoffs, Valderrama continued to stun the nation with his prolific capacity for setting up goals.
El Pibe made a short-lived return to Tampa Bay for the club’s last season in 1999, before finishing off his brilliant career amid the unfamiliar and frigid backdrop of the Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colorado. There, at the age of 40, he became the oldest player ever to pull on an MLS jersey in 2002 while leading the Rapids to the playoffs in his final season.
The move west was sparked by MLS contraction in 2000, when both of the midfielder’s previous teams (Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny) were disbanded due to financial concerns.
“Carlos is one of the most recognisable symbols in MLS. More than that, he is an elegant and incisive player, and continues to be a friend of soccer in the United States,” MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis commented early on in the player’s US spell.
El Pibe’s loss has been felt most keenly in Colorado. Since his failure to agree terms and subsequent retirement, the club has stumbled profoundly. Without their midfield maestro, the Rapids have failed to win even one of their first five matches in 2003. Only hitting the back of the net three times, Colorado are stuck at the bottom of the table with only one point from five matches.