Villain turned hero who is better than Beckham

One Premier League product has won over the US public with his goals and charm – and it is not 'Golden Balls'. Andrew Rogers in New York meets Juan Pablo Angel, a Villain turned hero
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The Independent Football

The new star of football in America was supposed to have arrived via Manchester and Madrid, not Buenos Aires and Birmingham.

The American public waited patiently for David Beckham to take his place alongside Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods in the US sporting pantheon, but "Golden Balls" has spectacularly failed to deliver. Instead, after spending the best part of a decade searching for a footballer to exalt, they have embraced the former Aston Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel.

For Major League Soccer, the 32-year-old Colombian's emergence as a highly talented and good-looking star with New York Red Bulls is a great relief. Over the years the league has invested heavily in the likes of Lothar Matthäus, Youri Djorkaeff and even the former Villa and Everton journeyman Paul Rideout. All failed to impress.

While Posh and Becks made their presidential arrival in America in the summer, Angel – signed from River Plate by Villa for a then club record £9.5m in 2001 – has ghosted in this year unmarked to win hearts and minds.

This is largely due to his ability, which American sports fans can equate to players in ice hockey and basketball. One move highlighted on television saw Angel leave Chicago Fire's highly rated centre-back Chris Armas and goalkeeper Matt Pickens on the ground as he poked the ball into the net. Suddenly the inhabitants of La-Z-Boy recliners and hardcore sports fans could see the same qualities they identify with in stars from other sports; bravado, swagger and unwavering self-confidence.

Angel may be outshining Beckham, but he has sympathy for his MLS colleague. "David has been unfortunate with injuries during his time here," he said, "but he's a quality player and it would be great to see more players of his calibre in MLS. He has been tremendous for this league, you just have to look at the exposure he's brought."

Since Beckham's arrival in Los Angeles in July, the former England captain has delivered 252 minutes of football in five MSL games. Only one ended with a Galaxy win, while, since joining the Red Bulls in April, Angel has hit 19 goals in 24 games, including a last-minute winner in a 5-4 thriller against Galaxy in August in which Beckham played. He has also been nominated for the league's most valuable player award.

"I wasn't sure what to expect but it has been an interesting experience to travel to the different cities around the United States," Angel said. "The country is big and has many cultures. It is not like England but the difference is something that I enjoy. I struggled when I first came to England, but my family is older now. It has made a difference.

"For me, leaving England was about football and starting a new journey. I had a great time, but it was a chance for a new challenge and I was excited about New York. I came here to grow the sport and for the challenge, everything else has been a surprise."

In the absence of the injured Claudio Reyna, Angel has worn the captain's armband and led the Red Bulls to the play-offs, where they were knocked out by Steve Nicol's New England Revolution on Saturday.

Angel's salary of $1.6m (£790,000) per season has also had MLS suits crying with joy into their spreadsheets and, unlike Beckham – who is expected to earn $250m (£123m) from his five-year deal with the league – he has been embraced by the highly prized Latino community. In the past MLS's attempts to win over the Hispanic market have floundered in thinking they could pass off second-rate players as the real deal.

"There is a large Hispanic contingent of football fans in the United States, but they have not always followed MLS teams because they can watch sides from their home countries on TV, and the connection with MLS was not established," Angel said. "I think now with [Mexico striker] Cuauhtemoc Blanco [at Chicago Fire] and myself we are attracting these fans to the league. They want to see top players."

Angel's class on the field and easy charm off it has created a publicity coup that must have Posh seething in her LA mansion. To boot, he was recently voted one of the top 10 sexiest men in America by the arbiter of Latino celebrities, People en Español magazine.

Angel, who was born in Medellin, admits that integrating himself with the Latino community was something he worked at, but he is surprised by his new-found fame. "We have to engage the Hispanic community to grow the sport and these types of honours are always nice," he said, "but I would trade all my individual awards for the chance to win the MLS Cup."

Angel's success in New York represents refreshing proof that having a sense of belonging with the community you play in still does has its value. He may not have really convinced as a top striker in the Premier League – he scored 62 goals in 205 appearances for Villa – but the English footballing values of teamwork and community have been assiduously picked up by the Colombian and he, in turn, has exported them to one of the game's new frontiers.

The MLS now has a five-month break between seasons and Angel may find time to pop back to the United Kingdom. "It will be nice to take some time away from soccer after training non-stop since last August," he said. "My family and I are looking forward to spending some quality time together. I will definitely think about it."