Jhon Duran arrives in MLS with one of the most unique signings in league history. He goes off as one of its biggest success stories, at least on the balance sheet.
The Chicago Fire signed the then-17-year-old Duran from Colombian club Envigado FC in January 2021, but the $2 million transfer fee came in a major blow. FIFA rules forbid a player from leaving his home country until he is 18, so Durán actually couldn’t join the Fire for another year. Caught in a transfer maze, he remained with Envigado throughout 2021, eventually arriving in Chicago in preseason last season.
Durán made his professional debut at the age of 15, becoming the second-youngest goalscorer in Colombia’s top league history and progressing rapidly in his home country’s youth national team system. However, he hasn’t been exactly on track in his MLS, scoring just one of his 2022 Chicago regulars in his first 21 games of the season. Joining the Colombian senior national team in October, in his last five appearances of the MLS season, he scored five times, and in Chicago he scored eight goals and he had three assists to finish his career. 1 year is over.
Fire didn’t intend to transfer him immediately, but his strong play last fall, a combination of physical profile (he’s listed as 6-foot-1, 161 pounds) and mouth-watering ceilings I just turned 19. This winter, he is of serious interest in Europe. Last week Aston Villa won the contract race for him. Premier clubs in his league paid Chicago his $18 million initial transfer fee, and could pay an additional $4 million more if Duran hits his benchmarks in various performances. Envigado will receive a portion of the final fee. Fire will also maintain a sell-out rate should Villa move him for a fee in the future.
“When you sign players, you also buy certain illusions,” Chicago sports director Georg Heitz told The Athletic last week.
From an economic point of view, Duran has fulfilled a fire fantasy. The deal represented Chicago’s lowest profit of about $15 million, one of the largest net gains in MLS history, and about the same as previous deals for Alfonso Davis, Miguel Almiron and Ricardo Pepi. Durán is under contract with Fire until 2026, with interest from other clubs besides Villa (Benfica, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United reportedly sniffing around) driving his price up. rice field.
Durán’s transfer came at the same time that the Fire officially transferred 18-year-old goalkeeper Gaga Slonina to Chelsea for a base fee of $10 million. To add more context to the windfall, Sportico reported last September that the Fire generated only $23 million in commercial revenue for his entire 2021 year.
Chicago would never have signed Duran had it not been for the MLS to introduce a U-22 initiative to its bogged down roster rules ahead of the 2021 season.
“Often you can find a way, but I don’t think it would have worked without the U-22 initiative,” Heights said.
As the name suggests, players signed under the U-22 initiative must be 22 years old or younger for their entire first season in the league. Most likely, they will not allow him to exceed the maximum budget amount which in 2023 he is set at $651,250. Their age and salary are restricted, but there is no limit to how much the club can spend on his U-22 player’s transfer or loan costs. Regardless of compensation, players signed under the initiative reached an MLS salary budget of $150,000 or $200,000 depending on age.
Effectively, this rule allows teams to spend more, but not take up too much space in their budgets, and limit up to three players of age who are likely to transfer for profit.
Duran is a near-perfect example of how MLS wants their mechanics to work. He was acquired at a very young age for a relatively pittance, did well in MLS, and was later sold for a huge profit. Duran would have needed more impact on the field for Chicago to finish 24th in the league in 2022 — but it’s pretty close.
“It was a smart decision to add it,” Heights said of the U-22 initiative. For players) we are competing against very big clubs, which is a very, very useful tool for those of us trying to get those players.
To their credit, Chicago took steps to mitigate Duran’s risk and kept Duran in the forefront of his mind even while he remained at Envigado for the first year after signing. According to Heights, the Columbia-based scout who initially identified him as a Chicago target attended all of Duran’s training sessions with Envigado, spending time at home with Duran and his family two or three times a week. and gave teenagers a constant touchpoint…with fire. Heights also said Chicago organized individual training sessions for Duran while he was in Columbia.
But don’t expect Duran’s pass to become the standard for winning the U-22s. Contracting players is an imprecise science. Signing at 18, 19, or 20 only adds to the uncertainty. Young people, especially those leaving their home country for the first time, fall into all sorts of pitfalls, such as injuries, homesickness, and old-fashioned stagnation, and a mountain of problems that can hinder their progress. Even players who are considered the safest bets at their age sometimes go up in flames.
So the U-22’s initiative players have had pretty mixed results in the MLS so far. Among the success stories was Leo Campana, who was acquired at the initiative of Miami last season, had a strong campaign and was upgraded to designated player of the year status. Jose Cifuentes and Diego Palacios were designated in a way that LAFC would free up budget space to use for other players. Orlando midfielder Cesar Araujo, Cincinnati’s Alvaro Baleal, Galaxy striker Dejan Joverich, Portland midfielder Santiago Moreno and NYCFC winger Gabi Pereira also look promising. None have been transferred yet, but they have contributed positively to the team and are very likely to transfer for profit in the future window.
Of course, there were also quite a few mistakes. Santiago Sosa and Franco Ibarra are not worth their price in Atlanta. Moussa Djitte and Rodney Redes have yet to make a big impact in Austin. Vancouver midfielder Caio Alexandre, Cincinnati winger Isaac Atanga, Seattle winger Leo Chu and Charlotte attacker Kerwin Vargas have also struggled to make it in MLS.
Players who haven’t hit big yet deserve more time. After all, they are still young and developing. But their experience is as illustrative as Durand’s when it comes to the impact of the U-22 initiative on MLS. Rules are not the most efficient way to improve the quality of league play. Overall, the team would be better off spending money on older players. However, this mechanism increases the chances of the team adding in transfer earnings, much like Fire did with Duran. It’s important. Dealing with the U-22s doesn’t always work out, but the rewards can be really big, as Duran’s case shows.
(Photo: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)