National Writer: Charles Boehm

Daryl Dike, Ricardo Pepi transfers point to rising tide in MLS

“We're still young in this. We're still just getting started in creating a valuable international market with the American player.”

Those were Luchi Gonzalez’s words to me a little over a year ago, as AS Roma and FC Dallas were approaching what would turn out to be an $8.5 million transfer deal for then-19-year-old homegrown fullback Bryan Reynolds. At the time, it was tempting to conclude Gonzalez, who has since parted ways with FCD and joined the US men’s national team coaching staff, was being a bit optimistic, especially given his proximity to the player and his impressive story.

It’s perhaps less so today – as we labor to get our heads around the reality that Daryl Dike and Reynolds’ former teammate Ricardo Pepi have, over the past 72 hours or so, completed big transfers to West Brom and FC Augsburg for reported fee packages of $9.5 million and $20 million, respectively, with various sell-ons and other incentives quite possibly pushing those numbers even higher in the coming years.

That’s almost $30 million just in the first three days of the January transfer window, which is quite an opening trajectory indeed for the year 2022.

Not so long ago, there was a thread of conventional wisdom that said outbound deals on this scale were fundamentally exceptional for MLS and the North American market, viable only for “unicorn”-type players with generational levels of potential like Jozy Altidore, Alphonso Davies and Miguel Almiron. And indeed, 10-figure price tags are still relatively rare in this part of the world, and will likely remain so in an international market still significantly depressed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic shock waves.

But the tide is rising. The word is out on the teeming talent to be found on these shores, and buyers appear more willing than ever to bet on its upside. Even quote-unquote smaller transactions like the ones that took Tajon Buchanan and Brenden Aaronson across the pond are noteworthy here, with real competition for the signatures of proven MLS performers providing proof of concept writ large.

The vague suspicion of US and Canadian players that once afflicted so many of them with a subtle headwind on arrival in the Old World has faded dramatically. Generational successions of trailblazers from John Harkes to Christian Pulisic to Davies have shown this region’s best can keep pace, and then some, even at world-class levels.

It’s certainly helped that MLS clubs have opened themselves up to this new frontier in multiple ways. In years past the likes of Dwayne De Rosario and Shalrie Joseph were infuriated to miss out on promising European moves as club officials preferred to hang on to them for present competitiveness rather than look to future value. Back then young players were more of a curiosity than a core roster-building element, too.

Now most of the league is open for business, even when – as in the case of Pepi and FCD – it complicates their squad planning for the season(s) ahead. Notably, Orlando helped demonstrate Dike’s value by letting him go on loan to Barnsley last spring, where he showed his qualities in the crucible of the English Championship that West Brom are seeking to summit en route to a Premier League return.

And MLS clubs are also more willing than ever to invest in teenage talents and trust them with significant minutes and key roles, driven by “Play Your Kids” believers like Oscar Pareja, who set the standard at Dallas and is now crafting a comparable project in Orlando.

Thus has the virtuous cycle, long sought by Gonzalez and others, cranked into gear.

In a poetic twist, the growth of North American investment in European football is also helping to fuel all this. Some reports suggest Augsburg are able to fund their Pepi swoop – which is nearly double their previous club-record signing – via a cash infusion from US billionaire David Blitzer, who recently joined their ownership group. And there’s no mistaking the Yank flavor at Venezia, the Serie A newcomers who shelled out to bring Gianluca Busio and Tanner Tessmann to Italy last year.

Yet what might be most noteworthy about the Dike and Pepi deals is not what they cost, or where they’re headed, but where they started from.

Coaches and scouts have long lamented this enormous continent’s built-in challenges to talent identification. Millions of people from many, many walks of life play and love this sport here, but they’re scattered across sprawling communities and huge swathes of land. That sweeping scale makes it all too easy for promising kids to slip through the cracks.

Dike grew up in Edmond, Oklahoma, and Pepi is from El Paso, Texas, many hours from the nearest MLS academy, with only relatively young USL Championship clubs in their vicinity. These are not exactly what most would consider traditional US soccer hotbeds – though we may need to fundamentally reevaluate our perceptions of such terms, considering how quickly and brightly their stars have risen.

Pepi was identified at a young age by FCD’s savvy talent-spotters and convinced to uproot himself and relocate to Frisco to join their academy as an adolescent, with his family providing support by following suit in the ensuing years. Dike took the NCAA path, shining at college powerhouse Virginia before moving to Orlando City via a Generation adidas contract and the fifth overall pick in the 2020 SuperDraft.

So there’s more than one path, and that sends a powerful message of hope and possibility, not only to others hoping to follow in their footsteps but everyone rooting for the positive outcomes this can reap for players, clubs and eventually even national teams – like the USMNT and their Canadian rivals, who as you may have noticed, currently occupy the top two positions in Concacaf’s Octagonal World Cup qualifying table.

Who’s next?