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Latest transfer window shows MLS has rising global profile

AP – As the talent level in Major League Soccer (MLS) grows, so does the inevitable loss of young players to top clubs abroad.

For fans, that might be disappointing, but it’s good for the league. Transfers can bring MLS clubs big money, which can then be used to develop more players and bring in others.

The international transfer windows that opened at the start of the year and closed on Monday for most European leagues generated more fees for MLS clubs than ever before, the league reports.

Among the players moved were teenage phenom Ricardo Pepi, who left FC Dallas for Augsburg of Germany’s Bundesliga on a USD20 million transfer fee, and Orlando City’s Daryl Dike, who went to West Bromwich Albion for a reported USD9.5 million.

DC United winger Kevin Paredes commanded USD7.35 million from the Bundesliga’s Wolfsburg, and New England goalkeeper Matt Turner is set to join Arsenal in the Premier League for an undisclosed fee this summer.

At the deadline, Atlanta Homegrown George Bello was transferred to the Bundesliga’s Arminia Bielefeld and Colorado’s Auston Trusty was dealt to Arsenal – but he’ll remain on loan to the Rapids until July.

Augsburg’s Ricardo Pepi and Leverkusen’s Robert Andrich fight for the ball in the German Bundesliga. PHOTO: AP

The MLS contribution to the international market has grown in recent years as the league’s teams nurture domestic talent in their academies.

Players like Pepi and Dike are no longer as rare as they once were — there are more international prospects waiting in the wings.

“We always want to retain and keep our best talent. That’s always option number one for us. But we also recognise that we are in a global market, player transfers are part of the business and then in order for us to be able to continue to invest, and continue to drive product quality, an aspect of that is the generation of transfer revenue,” said MLS executive vice president of competition and player relations Todd Durbin.

The signing of Canadian Alphonso Davies by Bayern Munich in 2018 signaled a shift in how MLS talent was viewed on the international stage.

At the time, MLS had a reputation as a destination league, with big – albeit aging – names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney venturing stateside to jumpstart or even wrap up their careers.

But Commissioner Don Garber said MLS was transitioning away from that “buyer’s league” image with the rise of the league’s academy system.

In his annual State of the League at the MLS Cup championship in December, Garber said the idea now is to strike a balance.

“We still are buying more than we’re selling, but we are reaching the point where we’re able to create value for the players that we’re investing in, the facilities that are training them, and becoming a league that is involved and engaged in the international marketplace, no different than any other league. We’re on path to achieving our goals in that front,” he said.

The league set the current trend in motion by investing in academies and implementing the Homegrown Player rule in 2008, which allowed MLS teams to sign academy players directly to their first team without an allocation process.

Pepi, 19, is among the transfer window’s Homegrown players. Named US Soccer’s Young Player of the Year, Pepi has also become a fixture on the national team as it seeks to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar this year.

Bello, 20, is also a Homegrown player, while 21-year-old Dike went the college route, drafted with the fifth overall pick in the 2020 draft out of Virginia. Turner, also currently with the national team, went undrafted.

Emerging MLS talent should also get a boost from the launch of MLS Next Pro, a developmental league that will bridge the pathway from MLS’s youth academies to its top tier teams. The 20 teams, all affiliated with MLS clubs except for independent Rochester, begin play this year.

“We have a very dynamic and significant talent pool in this country,” Durbin said.

“And, in the last four or five years, what you’re beginning to see is a sort of collision of our ability to identify that talent, our ability to get that talent into a high-level development environment, and the ability to transition that talent from a high-level development environment into a professional environment.”