On Friday, a World Cup squad that leans significantly on players with roots in Major League Soccer pulled off a gritty and unexpected draw against one of the giants of the international game.
And it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of.
Three hours before the United States sealed a well-earned share of the points in a 0-0 tie with England, Ecuador pulled off their own 1-1 result with the Netherlands to remain in the joint lead of the standings in Group A.
Current Golden Boot leader Enner Valencia has been the biggest story for Latricolor, which is looking to advance beyond the group stage for just the second time in its fourth all-time World Cup appearance.
But beyond Valencia’s three goals so far, one of the most compelling angles for American viewers is that as this Ecuador team emerges as a potential World Cup dark horse, it does so with the most MLS players of any team in the tournament outside of Concacaf. Four players on manager Gustavo Alfaro’s squad currently ply their trade on MLS clubs, and three more have done so at some point during the four-year World Cup cycle — including two as recently as earlier this season.
And at a time when some American and Canadian fans are critical of MLS’ ability to prepare national team players for the world stage, what’s particularly notable is the Ecuadorians who have played their way into this promising side aren’t necessarily even stars at the MLS level.
Jhegson Mendez is perhaps the biggest standout on this Ecuador side, playing a crucial role in midfield in an opening night 2-0 win against Qatar and in Friday’s draw. He’s now an MLS Cup champion, but hardly a big name, having been traded in the middle of this season from Orlando City to LAFC for a sum of up to $750,000 in allocation money. Most of his appearances were off the bench for The Black & Gold.
The there’s forward Michael Estrada, who has started alongside Valencia for Ecuador’s first two games, and who failed to stick at D.C. United despite scoring four goals and adding three assists. That’s the same D.C. United that finished bottom of the Eastern Conference table.
Estrada moved to Cruz Azul for Liga MX’s 2022 Apertura and scored three times in eight appearances there. But he’s been a critical performer in CONMEBOL qualifying, scoring six goals and 0.52 scored per 90 minutes.
Current LAFC midfielder Jose Cifuentes, former Minnesota United midfielder Romario Ibarra and current Charlotte FC loanee Alan Franco have made only brief cameos this tournament. But they all made contributions in qualifying. So did Seattle Sounders center back Xavier Arreaga, who has yet to appear in Qatar.
On some level, this cohort is doing more to prove MLS’ worth as a professional league. Nearly everyone who came to MLS did so by way of South America, and therefore was viewing MLS as a step up in competition and possibly a springboard to Europe. That pattern repeats itself with players from other nations in the Western Hemisphere as well, time and again.
But in another way, maybe this Ecuador team — and others like previous versions of Costa Rica and Panama that have leaned heavily on MLS players in the past — is showing what is actually most important about aspiring to the highest level.
It’s not so much about which league you play in, but whether you’re unafraid to leave your comfort zone and try to adjust yourself to a different nation and culture.
Ecuador’s MLS contingent has demonstrated that willingness and learned the flexibility and adaptability that comes with it. And now they’re a game away from potentially winning their group for the first time.