Going through his first Major League Soccer season, Columbus Crew SC’s fullback Milton Valenzuela is facing new experiences every week. Teams he’s never competed against, players he doesn’t know much about and stadiums he’s not familiar with have all become part of the 19 year old’s journey in the league.
This Wednesday, however, Valenzuela will certainly feel somewhat of a taste of his past when the Black & Gold host Atlanta United at MAPFRE Stadium.
The second-year franchise has tight connections with Valenzuela’s native Argentina as the club is coached by the legendary Tata Martino and has as many as five players who competed in the country’s first division recently.
Some of them, such as right back Franco Escobar, who also played for Valenzuela’s old club Newell’s Old Boys, and midfielder Ezequiel Barco, who is also 19 and won last year’s Copa Sudamericana for Independiente, have shared the field with Crew SC’s fullback in the recent past.
“I’ve played for the Under-20 National Team in the South American Championship in 2017 with Barco and Escobar was my teammate in Newell’s, both in the reserve and first team levels,” Valenzuela said. “They are both good guys and great players.”
“It’s very unique to play them here in MLS. It will be good to meet the guys again and it’s always interesting to play against former teammates because it brings me so many memories.”
Center back Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, a product of Argentinean giants River Plate’s Academy, and forward Tito Villalba, who played for San Lorenzo until 2016, are the other Valenzuela’s compatriots on United’s roster.
Add Paraguayan Miguel Almiron, who excelled at Lanus in his two seasons with the club, and the list of Valenzuela’s former rivals in his native Argentina playing for the Five Stripes is complete.
“I’ve never played against Pirez, Villalba or Alimiron, but I’ve watched several of their matches on TV,” he added. “Almiron played for Lanus and they won the Argentinean League while he was there. It was a very good team and a really nice one to watch.”
The reason behind Atlanta’s ties with the South American country is obviously Martino. A legendary coach in Argentina, he built the team’s roster with several players he was familiar with and used his connections in the country to bring several young talents to play in Major League Soccer.
The 55-year-old veteran has a particularly successful history in Newell’s, Valenzuela’s former club, where he both played and coached.
“Tata is a great coach and a legend in Newell’s,” Crew SC’s fullback commented. “The last time he coached there, he won the league. He’s hugely admired not only by me, but by anyone who’s connected to Newell’s. And he’s got a great international reputation as well as he coached the National Team and Barcelona. His coaching staff and him are elite level. It will be good to face them and measure up against teams like that.”
But of course, it won’t always be a bed of roses for Valenzuela when the Crew faces Atlanta. With both teams separated by just three points in the Eastern Conference standings and the Black & Gold having tied its last four MLS matches, a victory will be much welcomed by the team.
The Argentinean was not with the Crew when they beat Atlanta in the penalty kicks in the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2017, but he knows what to expect from them.
“I know they had a very good season in 2017 like the Crew and that they faced each other in the playoffs,” Valenzuela concluded. “They are leading the league right now, they are very competitive, have great players and it’s going to be a tough match. We are going to focus and give our best to keep moving forward.”