MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Top 12 most expensive incoming transfers in MLS history

On Wednesday, Atlanta United – for the third time in their brief history – set a new league record for an MLS incoming transfer fee with their $16 million acquisition of Thiago Almada from Velez Sarsfield.

It's another new milestone for a league that has experienced plenty this offseason, with several big outbound transfers dominating headlines in January, as well as a bunch of key acquisitions. This list doesn't even include players like (and many more):

  • Clint Dempsey to Seattle for $9 million in August 2013
  • Brian Rodriguez to LAFC for around $9 million in August 2019
  • Talles Magno to NYCFC for $8 million, with add-ons for a potential $12 million package, in May 2021
  • Miguel Almiron to Atlanta for $8 million in December 2016
  • Xherdan Shaqiri to Chicago for $7.5 million in February 2022

This list also doesn't incorporate massive free-agent signings in years past, including Lorenzo Insigne (to Toronto), Gonzalo Higuain (to Inter Miami), Douglas Costa (to LA Galaxy) and many more.

Nonetheless, here are the current top 12 most expensive signings in league history in terms of transfer fees, based on's own reporting and trustworthy reports of others.

From: Sevilla to LA Galaxy
Year: Winter 2020
Transfer fee: $9.4 million

Mexico's all-time leading scorer always seemed linked with an MLS move over the last few years as he changed clubs after initially heading to Europe with Manchester United in 2010. It finally came to fruition ahead of the 2020 season with the LA Galaxy.

Chicharito had a big season in 2021 after a disappointing debut season in MLS. Last year he tallied 17 goals and three assists in 21 regular-season appearances, nearly leading the Galaxy to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

He has 52 goals in 109 appearances with El Tri, though hasn't been involved at all over Qatar 2022 World Cup qualifying under Tata Martino.

From: Chivas to Sporting Kansas City
Year: Winter 2020
Transfer fee: $9.5 million

The same winter Mexican legend Chicharito came to MLS, former Liga MX Golden Boot and current El Tri international Alan Pulido arrived for an SKC-record fee of $9.5 million.

It may not rank among the absolute top fees in league history, but SKC have seldom shelled out major transfer fees prior to Pulido. It was a huge splash for one of the league's most successful clubs over the last decade.

Pulido had a strong track record at Chivas, Tigres UANL and Greek club Olympiakos before joining SKC. In MLS, Pulido has been stellar when available. Unfortunately, though, he has battled injuries seemingly his entire time with SKC and is set to miss the 2022 campaign after undergoing knee surgery. He has 14 goals and eight assists in 33 regular-season appearances.

From: Sunderland to Toronto FC
Year: Winter 2015
Transfer fee: Swap for Jermain Defoe (who was signed for $10 million a year earlier)

There technically wasn't a fee involved when US men's national team forward Jozy Altidore was acquired in a straight-swap for Jermain Defore. But given Toronto had just signed Defoe for $10 million a year earlier, I think that's a fair valuation to put him here. Altidore was acquired by Sunderland 18 months prior for $11 million, too.

Altidore bounced around in Europe a bit after breaking through with the New York Red Bulls and heading to Villarreal. He made moves to Hull City, Bursapor and AZ Alkmaar prior to Sunderland.

Back in MLS, Altidore was in part responsible for Toronto's best-ever period, including the treble-winning 2017 season in which they won the Supporters' Shield, Canadian Championship and MLS Cup. He has 62 goals and 20 assists in 139 regular-season appearances with TFC.

Altidore will soon reportedly join the New England Revolution as a free agent after reaching a contract buyout with Toronto.

From: Tottenham to Toronto FC
Year: Winter 2014
Transfer fee: $10 million

Unlike Altidore, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo, Jermain Defoe's time in MLS wasn't particularly gainful (at least long-term) after a $10 million move from Tottenham.

Defoe made just 19 MLS appearances, scoring 11 goals, and quickly returned to England the following season. Defoe has had a hugely successful career, making 57 appearances for the English national team. He has 163 goals in 496 Premier League appearances, too.

Defoe, who is now 39, is still playing (!), currently back with Sunderland in England's League One.

From: AS Roma to Toronto FC
Year: Winter 2014
Transfer fee: $10 million

Joining alongside Defoe, Michael Bradley helped usher in a new era for Toronto, two huge moves to signal their intent for the following years after struggling mightily during their first few in MLS after expansion.

Bradley had been with Serie A club AS Roma, where he made 46 appearances. He had successful stints with Chievo Verona, SC Heerenveen and Borussia Monchengladbach, as well as a brief loan to Aston Villa.

With Toronto, Bradley has been the heartbeat of the club's success and remains their captain. He has made 207 regular-season appearances with Toronto, starting the majority of their games every season since he arrived in 2014 to help change the culture and transition to an era of winning, including the 2017 treble.

Bradley made 151 appearances with the USMNT, one of the most decorated players in program history.

From: KRC Genk to Toronto FC
Year: Winter 2019
Transfer fee: $11 million

After a long saga with KRC Genk, Alejandro Pozuelo was worth every penny for Toronto during his debut season in 2019.

Pozuelo immediately became one of the league's most talented players and delivered a 12-goal, 12-assist campaign before following it up with nine goals and 10 assists during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He was named Landon Donovan MLS MVP that year.

Toronto identified and acquired Pozeulo during his time in Belgium, where he was one of the Jupiler Pro League's best players. He had 25 goals and 60 assists in 177 matches with Genk and also played for Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Swansea City.

The Spanish attacking midfielder is looking for a bounceback 2022 after an injury-riddled 2021.

From: Lille to Atlanta United
Year: Summer 2021
Transfer fee: $10 million with incentives to $12 million

A title-winner as part of Lille's surprise 2020-21 Ligue 1 championship, Luiz Araujo made a huge MLS deadline day move to Atlanta United last August.

The deal was for $10 million initially plus another $2 million in incentives, which have been described to me as attainable. So I feel comfortable putting him above Pozuelo here. Plus, during Araujo's first few months in the league, the Brazilian winger flashed incredible moments of quality, even if the consistency wasn't quite there yet.

Araujo is at the beginning of his prime at 25 years old. He made 136 appearances for Lille, including 28 in their title-winning season. He broke through at the Sao Paulo academy before joining Lille in 2017.

From: CF Monterrey to Inter Miami CF
Year: Winter 2020
Transfer fee: $12 million

Rodolfo Pizarro has been transferred a few times in his career, each one a lucrative deal. He's reportedly been the subject of more than $40 million across three different deals, one of which was to Inter Miami ahead of their expansion season for $12 million.

It didn't quite work out. Miami fell below expectations, had a front office and coaching change after a year, and faced sanctions for an improper designation in the Blaise Matuidi signing. Pizarro didn't quite reach his ceiling, with seven goals and 12 assists in 46 regular-season appearances for Miami over two seasons.

The Mexico international returned to Monterrey on loan this offseason, with his value not nearly what it was when Miami acquired him.

From: Sao Paulo to FC Cincinnati
Year: Winter 2021
Transfer fee: $13 million

A big swing by FC Cincinnati in 2021, Brenner was a constant with Brazil's youth national teams and was viewed as a wonderkid in Brazil for years (just ask any fans of the popular Football Manager game).

Brenner had 11 goals and four assists in 2020 for Sao Paulo, his breakout year before Cincy spent $13 million to acquire him. He was linked with various big clubs in Europe over the years as he broke into Sao Paulo's first team, but no move ever materialized.

The 22-year-old center forward still has big potential and is working to make the most of it in Cincinnati. Brenner had eight goals and two assists in 33 MLS starts last season as FCC finished bottom of the league again in 2021. A new front office and coaching staff will look to give his development another boost.

From: Independiente to Atlanta United
Year: Winter 2018
Transfer fee: $15 million

Already featuring Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, Atlanta took another swing for the fences with Ezequiel Barco, contributing to the league's most lavish attack.

Barco broke through with Independiente and was a key part of their Copa Sudamericana-winning team in 2017. He had eight goals and seven assists in 53 appearances with his boyhood club and was a key fixture in Argentine youth national teams before coming to Atlanta for big money.

The attacker was part of Atlanta United's MLS Cup championship team in 2018, though wasn't a key piece (17 playoff minutes across five substitute appearances). He recorded 17 goals and 17 assists in 81 regular-season games for Atlanta across four seasons as he battled consistency and injuries, plus had international duty.

Barco's Atlanta career hasn't worked out quite as expected, when he signed as one of the most highly-rated teenagers in all of South America, looking to reach Europe's top leagues. This offseason he returned to Argentina on loan to River Plate, making room for Atlanta to set a new league-record transfer signing.

From: River Plate to Atlanta United
Year: Winter 2019
Transfer fee: $15.5 million

At the time of Pity Martinez's acquisition, it was viewed among the biggest in league history in terms of impact.

Martinez was an absolute star with River Plate and earned 2018 South American Player of the Year honors before joining Atlanta for around $15.5 million. Even more than the money spent, the fact that an MLS club was signing the South American Player of the Year was huge.

It'd be churlish to call Martinez's time in MLS a failure, but it wasn't quite what many expected or hoped for. The attacking midfielder joined the reigning MLS Cup champion and was tasked with filling the void left by MVP runner-up and fan-favorite Miguel Almiron's move to Newcastle United.

That proved too difficult a task and, after seven goals and 11 assists in 39 appearances, Martinez was transferred to Al-Nassr. Part of the reason the $15.5 acquisition fee isn't looked at in a negative light is how the Saudi Arabian club paid Atlanta around $18 million to sign Martinez, turning a profit.

Now 28, Martinez has nine goals and 10 assists in 38 matches with Al-Nassr, winning the Saudi Super Cup so far during his time in the Middle East.

From: Velez Sarsfield to Atlanta United
Year: Winter 2022
Transfer fee: $16 million

After months of expectation and reports, Atlanta made official the acquisition of Argentine youth international Thiago Almada from Velez Sarsfield for $16 million. It's another hugely exciting and ambitious signing from the Five Stripes.

Almada, 20, recorded 24 goals and 11 assists in 100 all-competition appearances for Velez Sarsfield, shining in the Copa Libertadores before joining Atlanta. He’s also featured extensively for Argentina’s U-20 and U-23 national teams, highlighted by representing his home country at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, alongside Barco.

Will Almada live up to the price tag?