An Olympic Gold Medal with Argentina. Two Dutch Cups with Ajax. An Argentine Primera title with River Plate. These are just some of the highlights of Mauro Rosales' soccer career.
Players with that kind of resume, especially ones who are just 30 years old, are not supposed to be playing in MLS for the league minimum. They also should not be left looking for a job in January, and be relying upon their agent to be making pitches to MLS technical directors while they are in a public restroom.
Yet here is Rosales, playing for the Seattle Sounders while making $42,000 a year. Of course, now that he's also enjoying a season in which he's getting mentions as a MVP contender, he won't be making that little for much longer.
How Rosales ended up in this situation is a story with some interesting twists and turns. Some might even say fate had a little something to do with it.
Mauro Rosales was having a pretty frustrating winter. Not yet 30 years old, Rosales found himself without a team and without many options.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Rosales had signed with Mexico's Queretaro after two solid seasons at Dutch giant Ajax and two more seasons at Argentinian power River Plate. But just before the start of the Clausura, he was cut. The official word was that Rosales had failed a physical. He says it was because Gallos Blancos had mistakenly recruited too many foreign players and that he was the odd man out.
Whatever the truth, the reality was that he was out of a job and had no intention of sitting out. At that point in the off-season, most leagues' transfer windows were closed. Even where windows were still open, talent evaluators were reluctant to bring in Rosales at the last minute, especially considering there were questions about his health.
That's when fate made its first call.
Hearing of Rosale's plight through a mutual friend, newly minted agent Dario Sala gave his former teammate a call. Sala had spent the previous six seasons playing goalkeeper for FC Dallas. Before joining MLS, Sala had played alongside Rosales when both were at Newell's Old Boys. Knowing he could work his connection in MLS, Sala encouraged Rosales to give the North American league a chance.
"I pushed all the benefits of playing here: excellent training facilities, a safe atmosphere for players and their families, paychecks that don’t bounce, etc.," Sala explained in an email. "Selfishly, he was a dream client because I knew his skill level and I knew that he would fulfill the MLS mission to grow the game with fan-friendly, hard-working players. I didn’t want a prima donna, a has-been or someone with zero interest in promoting the sport here."
Now all Sala had to do was find a team for his player. Fate again intervened.
While at the MLS Draft Combine, Sala ran into Sounders Technical Director Chris Henderson when both were in the men's room. While it may not have been the best place to pitch a player, Sala told Henderson about Rosales anyway. Henderson was interested enough to pass the name along to Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer, who called Sala and explained the Sounders' situation.
"We told Dario in advance that we had no money," Hanauer said. "If (Rosales) wants a lot of money, we’re the wrong place to try to get a contract. Dario said 'No, he just wants to play and get a chance. If he proves himself, he wants to be rewarded.'"
The Sounders brought Rosales into training camp, which at the time was in Florida. Rosales played a game, listed in the notes only as "trialist," and impressed the team enough to earn a trip back to Seattle. After a few more training sessions, the Sounders were convinced Rosales could at least provide some depth, and signed him to a one-year contract.
At the time, little was expected. The Sounders looked to be two deep at almost every offensive position. A career right-winger, Rosales spoke of a willingness to play wherever he was needed.
Just hours before the season was going to start, there was another odd twist. The Sounders announced that the team and Designated Player Blaise Nkufo had decided to part ways, in a sense moving every player on the offensive depth chart up just a little.
Rosales made his debut in the Sounders' second game of the season, coming on in the 68th minute. He was a substitute again the following the week. Rosales got his first start of the season in Game 4, appearing in place of Fredy Montero who was recovering from wrist surgery. In the 17th minute, he sent in a low cross that hit Brad Evans perfectly on stride. Evans easily put it away, giving the Sounders their first run-of-play goal in the 2011 season.
Although the Sounders ultimately settled for a tie in that game, the two goals they scored seemed to dampen the frustration they were feeling over their 0-2-2 start. Perhaps more importantly, it also was the first time Sounders fans really saw what Rosales could do. Given the freedom to basically roam all over the field, he was a constant threat and gave the offense a clear spark. He started again the next week, picking up another assist on a beautiful cross, and this time the Sounders won.
Since that game, Rosales has started 17 more times and is posting numbers that are sure to draw the attention of MVP voters. After his one-goal, two-assist performance against the Columbus Crew last Saturday, Rosales now has five goals and nine assists in just 1,655 minutes played.
When adjusted for production per 90 minutes, Rosales' numbers look even more impressive. Of players with at least 1,500 minutes played, Rosales averages more goals and assists (.76 per 90) than all but two players (Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan).
Rosales' numbers become downright ridiculous when you factor in how much he's being paid. Limiting the scope of players to those who have registered at least five combined goals and assists, Rosales has been nearly twice as productive as the next closest player. Rosales has scored about 3.3 points per $10,000. Sounders teammate Lamar Neagle is second on that list with 1.8 points per $10,000. Even relatively high performing, but underpaid players like Nick LaBrocca (1.4), Fabian Castillo (1.2), Dominic Oduro (1.1) and Omar Cummings (1.0), pale in comparison.
As good as Rosales' "glamor" numbers have been, it's some of the less obvious stuff that makes his value even more apparent.
In Rosales' starts, the Sounders have gone 11-2-6, good for a points per match of 2.05. That's nearly a full point per match more than the Sounders have earned in all their other matches (they've gone 2-3-3 in the matches he hasn't started). The Sounders have score 1.74 goals per 90 minutes and outscored their opponents by 12 goals with him on the pitch. Without him, the Sounders' scoring dips to 1.16 per 90 and they've only outscored their opponents by one goal.
Rosales has also come through in clutch situations. Three of his five goals have come in the 80th minute or later and six of his nine assists have tied the score or given the Sounders the lead.
"He deserves to be more highly compensated for all the reasons you cite," Hanauer said. "He’s been great in the community, great in the field, fans love him. He's great in the locker room. He's a great conduit for the coaches to help tactically on the field. He’s just a good person. We want to try to keep him here in Seattle for more years."
Sala was recently in town, presumably to discuss a contract extension. There has reportedly been interest in Rosales from teams in Mexico and Argentina, but Rosales seems genuine when he talks about his desire to stay in Seattle.
"I am really enjoying being here with the guys, the team, the city," Rosales said. "I really want to stay. We are talking. We have time to finish everything. It’s going to be easy because we both want to have an agreement."
This really shouldn't come as a surprise. Seattle is one of the only places willing to give Rosales a chance when his reputation was damaged. It's the place where fans have embraced him, where his teammates love him. Not only has Rosales resurrected his career in Seattle, but he's taken it to heights never before seen. As strange as it may seem, those depressing days in winter were merely the harbinger of much better days ahead.