As a general rule, people who lack self-belief don’t willingly relocate their lives across international borders and language barriers. They also don’t ask the team president – on their first day in a new job – for the jersey number of not only the greatest player in the history of that team, but likely the entire sport.
But that’s precisely how Toronto FC’s newest designated player came to inherit the No. 10 shirt once worn by Pele for Brazilian club Santos. So, however the Yeferson Soteldo chapter ultimately unfolds in Major League Soccer, it won’t come undone by a lack of confidence.
“As a kid I always wanted to wear No. 10, so I think for me it was more, like, kind of living my dream, and I think my personality helped just to enjoy having that number and not adding pressure to burden me,” Soteldo said through a translator.
With Toronto’s No. 10 shirt currently occupied – by reigning MLS MVP Alejandro Pozuelo – the Venezuelan winger took to the pitch for the first time at practice on Thursday wearing No. 30. In his media unveiling later in the day, he recalled how that jersey number represented a fresh start, having worn those digits when he broke through as an 16-year-old at Zamora FC in his native Venezuela.
Already on to the fourth country and league of his short professional career, the soon-to-be 24-year-old Soteldo arrives at the ideal time for a team that has looked short of attacking options. Part of that has been the continued absence of fellow DP Pozuelo, who has been out with a thigh injury and has yet to make his season debut. But the team has also lacked a cutting thrust in attack, with Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola – last season’s joint top goal scorer alongside Pozuelo – also out for various parts of the season.
If first impressions count, the sight of Soteldo finding the top corner of the goal with his first touch in his first training session, according to head coach Chris Armas, would have been a welcome observation for his new teammates. And, having come through his quarantine before joining up with the rest of the squad in Florida, he is available for selection Saturday as TFC looks for its first league win of the season, against the New York Red Bulls.
But scoring goals isn’t the principal reason that TFC spent US$6.5-million in the middle of a pandemic to reinforce its ranks. Soteldo creates almost as many goals as he scores, having netted 20 and set up 17 more across 104 appearances for Santos, being named to the team of the tournament for helping the club to its first Copa Libertadores final – the South American equivalent of the UEFA Champions League – since 2011.
The 5-foot-2 winger also creates excitement. Both Armas and general manager Ali Curtis mentioned his ability to put fans on “the edge of [their] seats.”
Though the TFC hierarchy had expressed a preference to using its third and final DP spot on someone whose principal job was to score goals, the opportunity to get Soteldo was too good to pass up.
“Do you score those goals directly or do you assist on those goals, or do you create situations that result in goals?” TFC president Bill Manning asked. “At the end of the day, they’re goals, and so really trying to find the player that can help us create goal-scoring opportunities that translate into goals was our philosophy going into trying to find a third designated player.”
Though Soteldo is young – and as such could be a saleable asset for TFC for a number of years to come – both Curtis and Manning were quick to point out that he has more than 200 games of professional experience in Venezuela, Chile and Brazil, as well as representing his national team on 19 occasions. As such, his ability to have an immediate impact on the team was important, particularly for one that still has designs on adding to the MLS Cup it won back in 2017.
“You know, a designated-player tag in Major League Soccer comes with high expectations,” Manning said. “It’s a big position, role to play within the team, you’re only allowed three, and the best teams get them right and the teams that win championships generally get their designated players right.”
While Soteldo said he had spoken to fellow Venezuelan Erickson Gallardo, who also played for Zamora before joining TFC, about life in MLS, he said it was Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez who ultimately inspired him the most.
“He has opened the door for a lot of Venezuelans to MLS,” Soteldo said through the translator. “So, for me, my role right now is to keep working hard, try to do the same thing as he has done and make history with Toronto FC.”
If Soteldo can in any way approach Martinez’s success then it will be money well spent for TFC. The former striker for Caracas – where Soteldo was a ball boy as a kid – came to MLS before the 2017 season, and promptly scored 88 goals in his first three years, leading Atlanta to an MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup.
It’s a tall order, but as someone who once wanted to wear the jersey of a player labelled by FIFA as the greatest in history, Soteldo won’t lack the confidence to try to emulate his countryman.
“We did hear that story,” Manning says of Soteldo’s enthusiasm to wear Pele’s shirt. “We thought it was indicative of the type of player and personality that we’re looking to bring into this club, that wants to be in big games, wants to be in big moments and wants to be, you know, kind of the man, and the guy that can be a difference maker.”