Pato’s arrival in many ways reinforces the old perception that some in Brazil have about MLS. Another prominent Brazilian, like Kaka or Denilson, doing a stint in the twilight of his career. Pato was a one-time huge hope, and briefly shone brightly for Internacional in Brazil and AC Milan in Italy. But then came injuries and loss of focus and more column inches in the gossip columns than in the sports pages. He never came anywhere near to fulfilling his potential, and at the age of 31 seems to have been wandering for years — in England, Spain, China as well as Brazil — for what could be one last chance in the United States.
That trend had been somewhat reserved in recent seasons as veterans like Joao Paulo at Seattle Sounders FC, Heber at NYCFC, and Artur at MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew SC, have emerged as vital cogs in their sides. Players who may have not established themselves in their native country or elsewhere, but have found a home in MLS.
People in South America, especially in places like Paraguay and Argentina, have seen that MLS is much more than an elephant’s graveyard. The league has established itself as both a buyer and a developer of talent in those countries. But the notion of promoting and developing Brazilian talent is uncharted territory.
MLS may well have been out off by the wages paid by Brazilian clubs, considerably higher than elsewhere on the continent. But now FC Cincinnati have taken the plunge, spending a reported €15 million to acquire 21-year-old striker Brenner from Sao Paulo. This is precisely the type of player who in previous years would have gone to Europe.
But the market has been quietened by the coronavirus pandemic. It is more risk averse, with clubs thinking in terms of loan deals with an option to buy. Like Steve McQueen in “The Cincinnati Kid,” the Ohio outfit have bet high, putting their money on the table. They have sold the idea to Brenner that the move north can be both beneficial in itself, and a stepping stone to top level European football. He is an electric little striker, the type of player who makes things happen — and plenty has happened for him in the last twelve months. He had not made the breakthrough at Sao Paulo, and spent part of 2019 on loan in Rio de Janeiro with Fluminense.
But it all clicked last year. Coach Fernando Diniz gave him confidence, and he responded with a sequence of livewire displays. In the end, Diniz was probably a victim of his own success. Sao Paulo soared to the top of the Brazilian league table. But the lack of titles in recent years piles on the pressure. Going into the home stretch Sao Paulo still topped the table. But they buckled under the pressure. Last month, on the way to a game, the team bus was ambushed and attacked by a group of the club’s own supporters, enraged by seeing the chances of the title slip away.
It was the kind of moment likely to inspire any young player to head for the exit gate — and Cincinnati were holding the door open. Has he made the right choice? There are clearly risks involved. Brenner turned 21 last month. It is a cruel reality, but the major European clubs now seem reluctant to spend on anyone from outside the continent who has reached the 24-year mark. They would prefer to mold youngsters.
The example that Brenner could follow is that of Paraguay star Miguel Almiron. Signed by Atlanta United FC from Argentine club Lanus, he was used with great success by Tata Martino and transferred for a sizeable profit to Newcastle United in the Premier League.
Almiron was still 24 when he left MLS for Newcastle. Now in his third season in England, he is clearly doing better. But it took time to find his feet and he has not been a sensation. Brenner, then, will have to hit the ground running — in a team playing just its third season and opening a new stadium. The good news is that he can rise with it. Both he and Cincinnati are full of ambition, and it will be fascinating indeed to see how high Brenner can go in Ohio.