The list of MLS's all-time most expensive outbound transfers continues to get rewritten every year. Multiple times every year, to be more precise.
It happened again this offseason, headlined by Chicago Fire FC agreeing on a deal with English Premier League side Aston Villa worth up to $22 million for Colombian forward Jhon Durán. It could be tied for the second-most expensive transfer in league history, alongside Canadian superstar Alphonso Davies moving from Vancouver Whitecaps FC to Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich in 2019.
Every transfer deal is unique. They come with their own idiosyncrasies, nuance and context. The through-line linking them all is MLS’s stature and reputation in the global game has helped elevate prices as more clubs around the world look to the league for talent.
Durán spent a season in Chicago, playing under 1,400 regular-season minutes. He was known to European clubs before he turned 17, before the Fire officially agreed on a deal to formally sign him as a U22 Initiative player upon his 18th birthday.
That’s one way clubs have found and developed talent: by spending money to acquire them. Another is by investing heavily in their academies, like homegrown striker Ricardo Pepi ($20 million transfer from FC Dallas to Augsburg) or homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson (all-in $14 million from the Philadelphia Union to RB Salzburg after add-ons and sell-on clause).
This trend is not slowing down, be it youth development or imported talent. Durán’s transfer is not a one-off. I'll have to continue updating my list of MLS's all-time most expensive outbound transfers (I might need to expand to the top 15 soon).
Who else could follow Durán? It’s difficult to say with exact certainty where players can end up – idiosyncrasies, nuance and context matters – but we have a decent idea who could make their way onto that list.
Thiago Almada holds the MLS record for an inbound transfer ($16 million from Velez Sarsfield) and is the league’s first active World Cup winner, named to Argentina’s World Cup squad this winter and appearing in a group stage match.
One day, he could become the most expensive outbound transfer in league history.
It’s no guarantee and I’m not even sure if it’s likely or not. The deal that sent Almiron to Newcastle was special, and Almiron is a special player. But if there’s a player in MLS that could do it, it’s Almada.
The 21-year-old attacking midfielder had 6g/12a in 29 appearances during his debut MLS season for Atlanta United. He proved his quality in the Argentine Primera División, as he did in MLS.
Where will Almada end up one day?
Brenner, who just turned 23, enjoyed a breakout 2022 season with 18 goals and six assists in 29 appearances (2,061 minutes). He is a former Brazilian youth international and was originally acquired in 2021 from São Paulo for $13 million, one of the most expensive inbound transfer fees in league history.
Before joining Cincy, Brenner broke through the São Paulo academy into the first team, where he tallied 24 goals and four assists in 56 senior appearances.
FC Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira signed a long-term contract last winter, a historic one, earning the first homegrown-to-Designated Player extension in league history.
Last season was his age-21 campaign, so there’s plenty of time to go to Europe in the future. If that happens, he won’t be cheap.
Ferreira produced 18g/6a in 33 appearances for Dallas in 2022, getting him MLS Young Player of the Year and Best XI presented by Continental Tire honors. He then represented the US men's national team at the World Cup this winter.
Ferreira already has 36g/22a in his MLS career… and he only turned 22 in December.
The expectation around MLS is that Ecuador international midfielder José Cifuentes heads to Europe this month – but at the time of writing, nothing is sorted yet.
Cifuentes was a highly-rated Ecuador youth international, helping lead his country on a memorable run at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup. He just played at the senior World Cup in Qatar, too.
The plan when acquired – like a lot of the expensive, highly-talented South American imports on this list – was to develop and move onto Europe at some point. Magno, in the City Football Group family, is poised to do that down the road.
“He’s extremely skillful… As a winger, he can go to a Champions League club. He’s that good,” an anonymous executive at an MLS club told MLSsoccer.com last fall.
By age 20, Tolkin has already had two full seasons as the New York Red Bulls' starting left back. He seems ready for the next step abroad. Will that arrive this winter or later in 2023?
Tolkin has made 59 MLS appearances over the aforementioned two seasons, tallying 2g/5a. Austrian Bundesliga sister side RB Salzburg have previously expressed interest in the homegrown player, while Belgium's RSC Anderlecht were linked with Tolkin in the summer.
Those at the club have said since day one that Torres is destined to play for a big team in Europe, but will continue to develop and enjoy his time in Orlando for now. One day, the Uruguayan international will make a big move abroad.
Torres, 22, tallied 9g/10a during his first MLS season and is tapped for increased output in 2023.
If the Argentine winger continues developing on this course, he’ll be of interest to many European clubs.
The difference between these two categories is there isn’t a likelihood these players leave in the near future.
Sebastián Driussi, Austin FC's talisman and a finalist for the 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, is a bonafide star in MLS. Arriving from Russia's Zenit, Driussi already spent time in Europe after turning pro at River Plate in his native Argentina.
Driussi was linked with interest from EPL side Leeds United earlier this winter, but reports on that front have cooled down. If it became serious, he’d be very expensive.
Driussi, who turns 27 in February, had 22g/7a in 34 appearances last year as Austin finished second in the Western Conference table.
Cucho has only been in MLS for half a season, so it’s arguably odd to include him here (and why I opted against giving Portland Timbers club-record signing Evander a shout). But the Colombian international striker is bound to be linked with a move back to Europe at some point.
Last June, Columbus acquired Cucho from England's Watford for around $10 million. He scored goals in both the Premier League and LaLiga, then quickly continued that goal-scoring touch in MLS with 9g/3a in 16 appearances after arriving midseason.
The 23-year-old is currently with the Colombian national team before facing the USMNT next week, building toward his first full season in the league.
Mukhtar was the first DP Nashville signed ahead of their expansion season and has been the face of their attack, powering Audi MLS Cup Playoff trips in each of their first three seasons. He was an MVP finalist in 2021 and won the trophy in 2022.
Over the last two years, Mukhtar has 39g/23a (!!!) in 64 appearances. He’s a superstar in MLS.
Why would he leave? Mukhtar turns 28 in March and just signed a contract extension. Mukhtar also just opened a soccer academy in Nashville. He’s staying put… but hypothetically, the German native would be very expensive.