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El Bolso discusses Nacional’s roster shakeup in preparation for next season.

Because you’ve of course been reading Jobu’s Copa Libertadores updates, you know that Nacional’s international season did not end on the best of notes, with the favored Tricolores falling to a four year old Peruvian team in the second round. You also know that there’s been some instability on the coaching front: Chavo Diaz got fired halfway through the season, club legend Cacho Blanco stepped in as a successful interim coach, and then young Argentine sensation Rodolfo “el Vasco” Arruabarrena took the job when the players started complaining about not knowing who the long term coach was going to be.

Arruabarrena’s results weren’t the best, but when you take a job midseason, coaching someone else’s team, you are basically buying yourself time to see what you have before making your own moves after the season ends. Nacional faded in the national tournament as well, losing a chance to win its third trophy in a row and barely qualifying for next year’s Libertadores preliminary playoffs. It will be their 18th edition in a row, which is a tournament record. Now that the offseason is here, the coach has begun making moves to shape the team in his own image, and I’m taking a break from the history lessons to tell you all about it.

How It Works

There’s really no need to see this again, ever.
Credit: By jikatu (Creative Commons License)

International soccer is not run like professional sports in the states; there are no salary caps, no real roster size limits, and virtually no ironclad contracts. The top teams stockpile as many players as they can, both by developing them in their academies and by buying them from less prominent teams around the world. Players can only be transferred during certain windows, one in the summer and another during winter break, and during these times agents do their best to place their charges somewhere where the money is good (usually Europe), while teams in places like South America play a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, replenishing their squads while hoping that no new holes open up overnight. Players are technically under contract, but usually there’s a set amount of money that another team can pay to free them, or else the contracts have exceptions for foreign transfers.

In a market like Uruguay, where a player’s only hope of supporting his family is to get to Europe at a young enough age, any team that tries to keep its young stars locked up will soon find itself ostracized and starved for fresh talent. So everyone plays the game: they try to hold on to their stars long enough to sell high, and they fill holes with rookies coming up from their reserve squads, or else veterans that are no longer good enough for the top leagues but can still give a team a leg up in local competition. In addition, top European teams will sometimes loan out their second tier players as a way to make them more marketable. As a result, it’s not rare to see half or more of a team’s starting lineup turn over every six months.

At the beginning of the latest transfer season, Nacional was looking to put together a team that could compete in both the local tournament (where it needed to win the second half of the year to book a place in the finals) and the Libertadores, which offers international prestige, additional opportunities for player signings and loans, and enough cash prizes to make or break the year’s budget. In order to do this, it made some significant signings, and hoped that they would mesh with holdovers and some newly promoted talent to lead the team to success. The results were not good and the budget is unsustainable, so six months and two coaches later, Nacional is primed for a significant cleaning effort.

Taking Out the Trash

I want you to know, I looked for a picture of Abreu celebrating a goal with Nacional. This is as close as I got.
Credit: By jikatu (Creative Commons License)

First of all, there are a few players that did pretty well but are unlikely to be around come July. Young up-and-comer Gonzalo Bueno is one; he’ll be moving on (to England or Italy, most likely) and bringing Nacional a nice chunk of change, rumored to be around $10 million. Winter acquisitions Ivan Alonso and Efraín Cortes will probably be gone, as well. Alonso was the only credible center forward the team had, but he’s been fielding silly money offers from places like The United Arab Emirates, and at 34 he needs that one last big contract. Colombian-born Cortes was often the glue holding together a lackluster defense, but it seems that his future is back in Mexico, for reasons that are not altogether clear. El Bolso will be sad to see them go (although the word on the street the past couple of days is that Alonso’s offers may fall through and he will be back after all).

Other players, like defenders Hector “el Pichón” (the pigeon) Nuñez and Adrian “el Hueso” (the bone) Romero (don’t you love these nicknames?) did reasonably well, but they don’t seem to fit Arruabarrena’s system. Keeper Leonardo Burián, who’s 29 and has been a backup to countless starters for almost a decade, may choose to find a team where he actually gets to play every so often. Finally, veterans Diego Scotti and Vicente Sanchez are wanted by the coach, but would need to take a cut in pay so that Nacional can balance the budget a little bit, so they may be out as well.

Then there are the disappointments. Sebastián “el Loco” (the crazy one) Abreu has been underwhelming in his fourth tour of duty with the team: he scored a goal a minute into his tenure, but has spent most of the last six months rehabbing injuries and yelling at referees. He’s been told to go elsewhere. Another center forward, Alexander “el Cacique” (the chief and yes, he shoots imaginary arrows at the crowd whenever he scores) Medina, who’s 35 and a shell of his former self, is out as well, despite his role as the emotional leader of this team. Defender Alejandro Lembo, another locker room heavy, is gone too; you get the feeling Arruabarrena is trying to get a handle on this team by getting rid of players who are more adept at playing locker room politics than their positions on the field.

Adrian Luna, a once-promising youngster and youth national team standout who has been fading of late, will have to have his mail forwarded as well (he was on loan through June anyway, and so unlikely to stay no matter what). Matías Sosa and Juan Ramón Curbelo have been with the team for a year or more, but have yet to see a minute of meaningful action (I don’t even know what position Curbelo plays); everyone knew they were out few months ago. And then there’s Juan Albín. A relatively young (26) offensive playmaker with a successful past in the club and some shining moments in Spain’s top league, he came over for six months vowing to have left some maturity problems behind. Apparently he kept his skill in the same bag as his immaturity, because he’s been awful. Arruabarrena met with him personally to let him know he wasn’t staying (as he did with all of the players above), and his reaction was to qualify the meeting as “useless” and take some shots at the club on his way out. He won’t be missed.

Altogether, that’s 15 players who will potentially leave in the next month; you can see what Arruabarrena meant when he said he wanted to slim down the roster and rely on young players from the farm to put together his 2013-14 squad.

Hello… Is There Anybody in There?

Israel Damonte (18) and Jorge Bava team up to stop a Peñarol attack. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more of this next season.
Credit: By jikatu (Creative Commons License)

Ok, so is there anyone left? Actually, there’s quite a bit of talent primed to survive the purge. On the veteran front, other than Sánchez, Scotti, and (hopefully) Alonso, Alvaro “el Chino” Recoba will give it one more go. Recoba has been a mentor and positive influence to the young players around him, has been very flexible about compensation and minutes on the field, and can still change a game in just a couple of minutes. Argentine midfielder Israel Damonte will likely stay as well; he’s been a beast all year long. Former club prospect Diego Arismendi started to find his rhythm again near the end of the season, so hopefully he can stay and pair with Damonte to cut off rival attacks and set up Recoba and the forwards. Goalie Jorge Bava was a stalwart behind a porous defense, and he’s too old to get much attention from abroad. Maximiliano Calzada, only 23 but a veteran of two national champions, is back from a broken leg and ready to contribute again, making the midfield one of the team’s greatest strengths.

On the defensive end, left wingback Juan Manuel Diaz, who rarely played under previous coaches but seems to have gotten Arruabarrena’s attention, is ready to finally earn a place on the team, and Pablo Alvarez, another farm system product with success in Europe, is poised to take over Nunez’s spot on the right side.

That brings us to the young’uns. Because of a crowded schedule and frequent injuries and suspensions, Nacional used a lot of farm talent last season. Several of them will look to solidify their places on the main roster. Keep an eye out for the following names: Sebastián Gorga and Rafael García on defense, Santiago Romero, Maxi Moreira, Nicolás Prieto, Carlos de Pena, and Hugo Dorrego in the midfield, and Renato César, Gastón Pereiro, and Juan Cruz Mascia up front. All of them have shown flashes of talent; some, like Cesar, Romero, and de Pena, have already made a significant mark on the Uruguayan scene.

What to Expect

There have been no reports about this man returning to Nacional… this week.
Credit: By LGEPR (Creative Commons License)

Of course, this is Nacional, the New York Yankees of Uruguayan soccer, so the fans are going to expect more than the status quo. The local newspapers, desperate for readers, are already throwing names around, as they always do, of players that are “locks” to join the team in the next few days. Anyone who has a history with Nacional, or is even suspected of being a fan, is fair game for the ever-changing list of additions. Of course, Uruguayan soccer economics being what they are, big name players only come when they have nowhere else to go, so a lot of the reports are smoke and mirrors. However, they do help pass the time until the beginning of the season.

Already, Nacional has been rumored to be looking at Sebastián “el Morro” Garcia, a striker and farm system product who has not made the transition to higher level leagues; Pablo Pintos, a former standout Defensor Sporting player and currently el Morro’s teammate in Turkey, who almost joined Nacional six months ago; Richard “el Canguro” (the kangaroo, because he was born in Australia) Porta, another Nacional striker from years past who is miserable living in Dubai and has been lobbying for a spot on the team for months; Matías Alonso, Ivan’s brother and the top scorer in the last Clausura tournament with modest Juventud de las Piedras; and Pablo Aimar, a former Argentina national team star and the kind of big name veteran the papers love to throw into the mix, even though there’s virtually no chance he would ever end up playing in Uruguay as long as he can still run.

The latest news is that Sebastián Domínguez, another Argentine who is currently the captain at powerful Velez Sarsfield, has been tempted by Arruabarrena and is hours away from signing a contract. As always, the speculation is fun, but El Bolso will believe it when he actually sees Sebastián wearing the tricolor on the field. And if it doesn’t happen, well, the team looks to have a good balance between savvy veterans and talented youngsters. A less bloated squad means less fighting for playing time and more opportunities for everyone to stay in playing shape throughout the season. Besides, the more young players that get on the pitch, the better the chance that Nacional can swing a juicy deal or two to relieve financial pressures.

Featured image courtesy of: Da dinges (Creative Commons License)/

About El Bolso

El Bolso is Uruguay’s foremost soccer-fan-in-exile, a true authority on the Celeste and its favored son, the Club Nacional de Football. He believes in precision passing, tireless marking, and strong finishing, and is not above the occasional slide tackle from behind when the situation calls for it.

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