The January transfer window has seen a surprising flurry of outbound moves from MLS, with several of the most exciting young players in the league on their way overseas.
Seattle Sounders winger Jordan Morris has joined EFL Championship side Swansea City on a six month loan with a potential purchase option.
Philadelphia also sold defender Mark McKenzie to Belgian side Genk, receiving up to $6 million in return.
Add to this potential a move for DC United’s Paul Arriola, and this window has seen a pretty significant number of outbound moves, all of which share similar characteristics.
European clubs are recognizing the incredible transfer value available to them in young Americans playing Major League Soccer. The investment into the academy system by MLS owners is paying off. Young American prospects are being found and developed at a level of quality we haven’t yet seen.
It’s not a sudden development, with academy-developed players like Weston McKennie and Chris Richards moving to Europe without playing a minute in MLS (update: add Justin Che to the list), or Joe Scally leaving after just six appearances. But this January has enforced even more the idea that MLS can be a valuable pipeline for young players to Europe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the transfer market all over the world. On one hand, you have the majority of European clubs without limitless bank accounts at their disposal, who are now in need of more affordable transfer targets. And on the other, you have the MLS season delayed until April, with the potential for a work stoppage meaning that players could go months without playing. Loan options are more attractive now than ever.
From an MLS perspective, this is a very positive trend. MLS isn’t a destination league, and has a long way to go before it can think of competing with Europe’s Top 5. There’s nothing wrong with being a “selling league”, though. Developing young talent, either domestically or from South American, giving them a place to grow for a few seasons and selling them to Europe for a profit is a sustainable, attractive model that can facilitate long-term growth. It’s what most leagues and clubs in Europe do anyway.
From a US Men’s National team perspective, it’s even better. The USMNT already can field an XI of players plying their trade at the best clubs in Europe. In reality, the open spots in the roster are 12-23, and those will likely be filled with a mix of players from MLS and Europe. More players playing at the highest level means more players to choose from, and more overall quality in the squad.
MLS is a good league. I’ll defend its quality any day, but it’s also important to be realistic about where it is in the global picture. MLS players can still be valuable contributors at the national team level (see Matt Besler in 2014), and they’ll continue to be a major part of the picture moving forward.
But we’re at a point now where the rest of the world is starting to recognize that Americans can be just talented as players from anywhere else, that they’re developing into reliable professional players in their domestic league, and that they’re often available for a fraction of the cost as their foreign counterparts.
This January won’t be a flash in the pan. It should be the start of a new trend.